On Wednesday, Sept. 3, at 10 p.m., FX ventures into untamed television territory — again. It's the debut of the network's latest dramatic series, Sons of Anarchy, a reinvention of Hamlet that rolls in the world of a notorious, gun-running outlaw motorcycle club.
The series is an unflinching Harley ride through a motorcycle brotherhood, a fiercely loyal band willing to do whatever it takes to survive. On set, outlaw bikers serve as technical advisers and some producers and cast have personal contact with the underworld. The show is “as real as it gets,” says John Linson, an executive producer.
Said FX president and general manager John Landgraf, motorcycle clubs “have been portrayed in film many times, but [have] never been the central source or location for a scripted series in television.”
FX hopes Sons of Anarchy is the latest in a string of hits, such as The Shield and Nip/Tuck, that fortifies its unique brand of edgy entertainment, with series that have been called basic-cable versions of HBO fare like The Sopranos. (Kurt Sutter, the Sons of Anarchy creator and an executive producer on The Shield, said he started out trying to create a “West Coast version of The Sopranos.”)
FX is betting SOA will fill a void left when cop drama The Shield concludes its upcoming seventh and final season.
Early buzz on the show from critics, going back to a screening at the Television Critics Association Tour in July, is that the new show will fit right in at FX.
Said Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle: “It's the first buzz show to debut. It's about biker gangs. And it's on FX. That's pretty much all you need to know.” The Associated Press's Frazier Moore says it joins the Fox-owned network's “roster of outstanding dramas (like The Shield and Nip/Tuck) that showcase fascinating antiheroes who buck the system.”
Fittingly, the Sons of Anarchy set is plopped in a gritty industrial neighborhood not far from Burbank Airport. On a nearby corner, the windowless Adult Super Store advertises all manner of “DVDs, magazines, and love toys.”
It's another blistering hot, polluted North Hollywood day. Episode six is in production. Against the odds, director Gwyneth Horder-Payton ekes out a scene set in the clubhouse outdoor “patio,” which consists of a picnic table, a punching bag and a boxing ring.
A train rumbles by, then planes taking off from Van Nuys and Burbank whine overhead. “Half-Sack” (Johnny Lewis) skips rope, training for a big fight. Money is riding on the match — “15K on the line and a lotta action on the side,” says Clay Morrow, the “MC” president, played by Ron Perlman.
Cherry (Taryn Manning) — an old lady wannabe — slides in and disrupts Half-Sack's training by delivering a beer.
A car alarm erupts next door. They roll again.
“No booze, no dope, no p*ssy,” grouses Clay. “Quarantine time!” announces another MC member. Cherry is unceremoniously escorted from the premises.
Sons of Anarchy is a creation of FX Productions in association with Fox 21, a separate unit of 20th Century Fox Television that aims to produce new shows for much lower costs. The sets are detailed but spare compared to their lavish broadcast cousins, like the two-story Zen extravaganza built for Fox's Dollhouse. Sons of Anarchy, by contrast, has more of an indie film atmosphere, drawing its energy from rich storytelling and stellar performances from a large ensemble cast.
Katey Sagal, most familiar to television audiences for her comedic roles like Peg Bundy in Married … With Children, stars as Gemma Teller Morrow (wife of Clay, mother of “Jax,” the Hamlet figure, played by Charlie Hunnam). Sagal will be one of the big surprises to audiences. Just as Ted Danson shed his Cheers typecasting on FX's Damages, Sagal breaks from her past with a vigorous portrayal of Gemma, the ruthless club matriarch. Comparisons to a female Tony Soprano are inevitable.
Said show creator Sutter: “She's the backbone of the club. She's that maternal power that drives the club. All her toughness, all her grit and energy, really stems from that deep, dark, maternal 'I'll f*cking kill you if you come near my cubs' place.'”
In her trailer, Sagal patiently juggles the schedule of three children by cellphone. She talks about motherhood and Sutter, her husband. Sutter tailored the part of Gemma (whose dead husband co-founded the MC with her current husband, Clay Morrow, continuing the Hamlet theme) with Sagal in mind.
When she met Sutter, she was a single mom with two children. “We were like the Three Musketeers,” she laughed. “It wasn't an easy door to break open. … He saw me putting them first. I'm very protective. I think Gemma has that mothering quality that's inspired by my love and adoration for my children.
“Gemma is very queenly,” added Sagal. “It's all about her kingdom. That's also her motivation. The grandson [born with a heart defect] is the future. It's always about survival.” In the pilot, during a hospital scene confrontation with Jax's ex-wife (played by Drea de Matteo of Adriana Sopranos fame) over the grandson, viewers will see Gemma's instincts on full Harley throttle.
Fortunately, Sutter said he loves writing and exploring strong female characters. He thinks the show is a “great balance between testosterone and estrogen.”
In addition to Sagal, the ensemble is populated with strong women, including Maggie Siff (who played Rachel Menken on Mad Men) as Tara, a doctor who is shaping up to be Gemma's nemesis.
Speaking from his office tucked in a nondescript building with a hidden entryway, Sutter said one critique of the show could be that it's “too ambitious and that the ensemble is big.”
But he defended his decision to go big as the right one.
“My experience in that world,” he said, “there are a lot of big personalities. There's a lot going on, from the inane, ironic and asburd sh*t to these huge dramatic things, where people are dying and getting killed and old girlfriends are showing up with guns.
“It was an amazing, eye-opening experience. I tried to capture the scope of that in the pilot and this first season.”
About two years ago, Sutter spent time (“a few days,” he said) in Oakland with an outlaw club he declined to identify. He was introduced to the biker subculture by John Linson (Dogtown). John and his father Art are listed in the credits as executive producers.
“I had an interesting lunch with John,” recalled Sutter. “Pretty much everyone I've met to develop a TV show with, they have a book or property of some sort. John essentially said 'I know a lot of these biker guys and they're really fascinating and I think it would make a cool show.' That was his pitch.”
Sutter said he became enthralled with the history, and in the course of an afternoon, “came up with the idea for the pilot and the series, and the Hamlet-esque component.”
While he had no doubt the people he was meeting were outlaws and could be very dangerous, he was nevertheless fascinated by the “swagger and self-confidence.”
“They don't take themselves very seriously,” said Sutter. “They're constantly giving each other sh*t. There's no politically correct humor. They're racist, they're sexist and they're misogynistic and they make no f*cking apologies. I found some of them to be unbelievably f*cking funny in a dark and twisted way.”
Sutter said he strives to strike that balance in the show, to “juxtapose the violence and danger against the brotherhood, family, dark humor and compassion.”
Depictions of outlaw biker clubs carry a certain amount of risk. Hunter Thompson ran afoul of several Hell's Angels while working on his 1966 book Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs and was reportedly beaten by several club members.
HBO is currently embroiled in a legal brawl with Hell's Angels veteran Sonny Barger, who sued the network last April. Barger alleges that HBO nixed his participation in its competing outlaw biker series, 1%.
According to the suit, filed in federal court in Los Angeles, Barger, known as the founder of the Hell's Angels (and a prominent figure in the Thompson book), claims that he helped HBO and writer/producer Michael Tolkin develop the concept and script for the show. Barger claims HBO froze him out of the project and now refuses “to acknowledge the contributions or authorship” of his work “asserting instead that the 1% script is an original work of defendant Tolkin,” according to the complaint.
“I don't know what HBO was thinking in turning their back on Sonny that way,” said Sutter, who has claimed in his blog (http://sutterink.blogspot.com) that he pitched SOA to HBO first, before selling it to FX. “Sonny's a smart guy. He's got more lawyers than bodyguards … it's not a smart thing.
“You're already alienating the world you're trying to represent from the jump. … We're trying to avoid those things and keep the lines of communication open.”
HBO senior vice president of corporate affairs Jeff Cusson said “the case is no longer pending” but could provide no further details.
Within days of the Barger lawsuit, FX gave Sons of Anarchy a 13-episode pickup.
After his initial visit, Sutter returned to Oakland several times, and befriended a couple of the bikers. There are two TA's [technical advisers] on set who are members of an “outlaw club,” according to Sutter. When some grumbled that lettering on some cast T-shirts was too familiar to a club's lettering, “I heard that and we changed the lettering.”
While Sutter believes the production is “doing everything we can” to maintain steady relations with the outlaw biker community, he's also realistic. “By the nature of the outlaw code —[which is] 'we can't be put in a box and f*ck you for trying' — I don't expect us to be embraced by the outlaw community. It's just antithetical to what it represents,” he acknowledged. “That's the irony of it.”
Shaded from the relentless sun, Perlman talks over the whine of power saws. The classically trained and furiously busy Perlman (the star of Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy II) said he was attracted to the show for two reasons. “It's the smartest writing, day in, day out I've ever had the pleasure to be a part of. We're seven episodes in and there hasn't been one scene that I didn't approach voraciously.”
Second, Perlman freely admits he was also both drawn to, and intimidated by, the part of Clay Morrow. Clay is the “ultimate challenge. I've played psychopaths and sociopaths but I've never played someone as sure of himself as Clay. I didn't know if I could.
“Even Hellboy has a soft center. Clay has no feminine side. None! All my characters that I've ever played have always had a little soft center. Not Clay. He's one color. I didn't know if I could understand someone as tough as he is. He never questions himself.”
But then Perlman added: “We just finished shooting one episode where we see [Clay's] kryptonite. It almost takes him out.”
“I don't know if I should say this but … it's Gemma,” he adds. “You talk about a chick show. This is a chick show! [The episode] was written by a woman. No man could have written this script. Every aspect of womanhood is explored.”
Perlman pulls no punches about the dark realism, a hallmark of FX programming. “There are things I'm reading that are truly shocking — sudden, explosive, incredibly real. But never gratuitous.”
Perlman said the upcoming episode seven is “the most epic so far … huge events take place.”
When asked to characterize the flame that drives Sons of Anarchy members, a club established by military veterans, Perlman turns intense. He leans in and his eye contact is unwavering.
“Sons of Anarchy was founded by vets right after paying the ultimate sacrifice,” Perlman said, in a way he and other cast members have of talking about the club as if it's not a fictional entity. “They were made to feel like outcasts, so they became ones. At one point these were great Americans — great Americans — who believed in family, flag, fighting for what one believes in; fighting against injustice.
“After the slap in the face of returning home … [they thought] 'if the United States government is going to make stuff up, then f*ck it. We'll make it up as we go. And it will be something we can believe in, that protects its own.'”
In contrast to Perlman, Charlie Hunnam, a 20-something British actor, quietly retreated for the last two years. For various reasons, he didn't work. Mostly, he chose to sit out until the right opportunity presented itself. When he read the SOA script, he said, “It was everything I wanted to do. The quality of writing was as high as any of the features.”
Sutter has stated that Hunnam was his first choice to play Jax Teller (son of Gemma and stepson to Clay) after spotting him in the indie film Green Street Hooligans, about football hooligans in London. Hunnam said Sutter wanted to know if he was “willing to commit to doing the show for seven years. I told him, 'As long as you're diligent and keep the quality, then I'll be here with you.'”
Hunnam immersed himself in the role. In preparation for his Green Street Hooligans role, he said, he “ran with the real crew we were representing in the film” for about a month. For his work on Sons of Anarchy, he located an outlaw group.
“I have no interest in the Disney version of any of this. My area of interest is finding the truth of these worlds.”
“These guys are no joke,” Hunnam said of his outlaw contacts, a different set than the MC Sutter cultivated. “I met them before we started filming. Of the guys I know, two have already been murdered. It's not for the faint of heart.”
Hunnam said the bikers he knows are “influenced by modern urban culture” and they “dress much more hip-hop.” Hunnam brings those influences to the screen. He credits his contacts for helping him bring greater authenticity to his role, even down to the white sneakers he wears.
While Hamlet offers a broad hint of what to expect in Sons of Anarchy, Hunnam says it's also about loyalty to a family.
“We talk about these guys as 'lifers,'” Hunnam says. “Jax has already made the ultimate, huge commitment. He has the entire insignia of the club [tattooed] on his back. In the real world, and in Sons of Anarchy, if you're part of an outlaw MC and decide you're leaving the club, then the iconography must be removed. And it's usually against the persons' will.”
Then Hunnam softens his voice. “We handle that in an episode.”