Creating television is not an exact science. For every show that debuts as a fully-formed entity (“The Shield,” “The Sopranos,” “Arrested Development”), there are plenty that struggle early on but improve dramatically over time, usually when they return for their second seasons, having had a few months to examine what worked and what didn’t in the debut year. For some shows (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Breaking Bad,” “Parks and Recreation”), that creative leap taken in year 2 is one that sticks, while for others (say, “Chuck”) it represents an early peak, where all the elements consistently click in a way that didn’t often happen before or after.
I had hoped “Sons of Anarchy” was one that made it to the next level and stayed there, but as the motorcycle club drama enters its fifth season tomorrow night at 10 p.m. on FX, it’s clear that incredible second year was the exception and not the rule.
“Sons” creator Kurt Sutter and the team he’s assembled continue to do many things very well. The strong and deep ensemble cast gets ample time to shine, with Charlie Hunnam as conflicted club leader Jax, Kim Coates as the brutal Tig and Ryan Hurst as the mournful Opie getting especially strong material in the two episodes I’ve seen so far. Sutter also introduces a pair of intriguing new characters, and great actors to play them: Harold Perrineau as a terrifying Oakland crime lord who’s not exactly what you’d expect, and Jimmy Smits as a local pimp (or “companionator, as he calls himself) who befriends Jax’s mother Gemma (Katey Sagal).
But the character work gets buried under an avalanche of plot, all of it designed to simultaneously get Jax and the Sons into trouble while also providing some kind of well-disguised escape hatch.
Last season, for instance, sunk the club into a quicksand mess involving a ruthless Colombian drug cartel, a stack of old letters written by Jax’s late father, and the increasingly evil machinations of reigning club leader Clay (Ron Perlman). The year built and built towards the inevitable moment where Clay would have to either die or be banished for his misdeeds, where Jax would skip town over his disillusionment with the Sons, and where one or both of Opie and Juice (Theo Rossi) would also have to make a permanent exit from the series, given things done to or by them. Instead, at the last minute, the club’s cartel contacts were revealed to be secret CIA double agents, who in one fell swoop were able to preserve Clay’s life, force Jax to stay (and take over the club), spare Juice, etc.
The CIA revelation played not only like a cheat (there was no earthly way a viewer could have guessed that ahead of time), but an easy out for a show that wanted to create the sense of danger for its characters without having to actually get rid of anyone people cared about. (Clay murdered Opie’s father Piney, so the body count wasn’t zero, but Piney had always existed on the series’ margins.)
That said, the CIA maneuver also landed the series in a potentially interesting place. Jax, who had spent the entire series trying to either reform or leave the club, was now trapped as both its leader and facilitator of a deal to transport guns and drugs for the cartel. Clay was alive but badly injured and removed from power (he’s the new Piney, right down to the oxygen tubes he has to wear), and Gemma has also been marginalized now that Jax’s lover Tara (Maggie Siff) is the new queen of the club.
The way the fourth season ended, coupled with a season-long misstep the year before where the Sons became pawns in a game involving IRA leadership in Belfast, significantly lowered my expectations for the series going forward. But I still held out hope that the way Sutter had reshuffled the board (even if he’d kept nearly all the pieces) might rejuvenate “Sons” a bit as it moves closer to its endgame. (Sutter has said he has seven seasons worth of stories to tell.)
But no matter who’s in charge of the club, the problems are the same both for the bikers and the series: a never-ending string of violent encounters, legal hassles and mortal jeopardy where characters are placed in a tight box before being offered the chance to escape into a slightly bigger box, and then a bigger box than that, and so on. Even Clay’s diminished role doesn’t feel like it will last for very long.
Late in the season premiere, Jax gets what feels like the 17th piece of bad news he’s had in the last day. He turns to Tara, stone-faced, and she asks – unintentionally turning into a surrogate for viewers who may be weary of one plot twist after the next – “Oh, God. Now what?”
Sutter has said that he never intended for “Sons” to be analyzed on the level of an HBO or AMC drama, and that his goal was to make a fun, pulpy, adrenaline-fueled show. And if you’re not meant to think too hard about what’s happening, then “Sons” largely succeeds at its goals, particularly given the performances, the direction (led by Emmy winner Paris Barclay) and Sutter and his writers’ talent for crafting gut-wrenching individual moments. But if you ever held out hope for “Sons” to be more than that – smarter and more consistent and not as married to overly-complicated plotting – then the start of the fifth season suggests you will continue to be disappointed.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE: As part of my attempt to make my workload more manageable this fall, I won’t be doing weekly “Sons” reviews this season. Geoff Berkshire will be covering the show each week on our Monkeys as Critics blog, and I’ll either be posting here occasionally if there’s a notable episode, or simply waiting until the end of the season to offer some thoughts.