How do you review a show you admire rather than love?
That’s the question that sits at the forefront of my mind after watching the first two episodes of the upcoming fifth season of FX’s “Sons of Anarchy”, which returns September 11th. If you have listened to the “Talking TV With Ryan And Ryan” podcast, you know both Mo Ryan and myself have been invested in the show for quite some time, even if the show has rarely re-ascended to the heights of its second season. We’ve dedicated weekly podcast segments to the show over the course of the fourth season, a season that seemed like a make-or-break one in terms of the stakes of the show. And just when it seemed like “Sons” was going to blow everything up, it stopped short, holstering its narrative trigger finger. That was strange for a show that lets the bullets fly fast and often.
I’ve come across plenty of complaints from readers of various reviews that implore me to review the show as it is, not as it would be. And while that’s a fair request, it’s often a blanket demand for, “Stop shitting on a show I love.” That’s ALSO an understandable request, but one with which I simply can’t comply. Such complaints are usually the sole province of weekly reviews, which tend to attract readers that are fans of that particular show. I bring all this up because there’s a ceiling that Kurt Sutter has placed upon the show by not killing Clay Morrow at the end of the fourth season. That ceiling doesn’t exist for all viewers of the show, but it certainly exists for me. So while there are still plenty of things to enjoy about the fifth season of the show, the once limitless potential of this show now feels dragged down by an overly complex storyline and a simultaneous refusal to either cut losses or eliminate characters. Those that thought the end of Season 4 was a strong coda to the season will disagree with everything that follows, and that’s fine. But what follows isn’t wishful thinking so much as grappling with a new world order that seems to have robbed the show of its urgency.
Most of what I would say on this topic has already been covered by Mo herself, although it appears I’m more positive about this season than her at this stage in the game. The fact that I’m positive at all is something I’m pleasantly surprised by, since not killing Clay all but killed my enjoyment of the show in the fourth season finale. It was the final straw in a season that kept creeping up to the edge of meaningful changes only to employ a deus ex machina or simply skip key steps in letting certain characters off the hook. Juice’s storyline in Season 4 was a mess from start to finish, hinting at complex racial relations within SAMCRO and Charming while never truly exploring them. Juice’s attempted suicide was another cop-op, one that was truly exacerbated by Chibs’ ultimate reaction to hearing about Juice’s true identity, which basically amounted to, “Why did you spend all this time worrying?” The show TAUGHT the audience to worry about that issue, and that made Chibs’ brush-off all the more problematic. All of these story points hinted at true darkness, true conflict, and true crossroads. Instead, the narrative train kept on chuggin’, with barely a scratch to be seen.
This of course says almost nothing to do with the actors and everything to do with the writing. If I had to break down the problems I have with television shows in general, I’d attribute about 80% of the fault with the writing and 20% with the performances. So I can say that I have major problems with “Sons of Anarchy” even while simultaneously stating that this might be my favorite ensemble on television. Top to bottom, it’s hard to find a weak link, and I’d put them against any ensemble in the 21st century. I am having a hard time swallowing the Jax/Clay storyline, but Charlie Hunnam and Ron Perlman are fantastic in every single scene early on. Perlman’s Clay appears to have aged thirty years since last we saw him, yet shows hints that such rapid decline also potentially masks a larger plan at work. If I had to single out a single returning character as truly excelling in these early hours, I’d shine a light on Kim Coates, who gets the richest storyline in these first two episodes and sells every single moment of it with anger, emotion, pathos, and every other emotional note that represents the best of “Anarchy”’s muscular melodrama.
New cast members Jimmy Smits and Michael Perrineau do reliable solid work in the early hours, although their scenes are essentially heavy lifting in order to make later episodes truly sing. Revealing their true roles in this season would be both reductive and misleading: As with all characters within this universe, what they initially state to be their intent often masks a hidden agenda. Trying to grapple with that would be fruitless at this point. But trying to grapple with it also makes one stray away from SAMCRO itself, and that points to a larger problem with this season. Rather than honing the storyline, Sutter and company are just piling onto it. Charming, once as much a character as any member of SAMCRO, has receded into the background in this fifth season. Once the nominal reason why the club did what it did, now it’s a faceless background devoid of character. Compare this with “Justified,” another FX show, in which each newly uncovered part of Harlan County adds to our understanding of that world. Here, no introductions don’t illuminate so much as obstruct.
One could make the sound argument that each season introduces new problems in order to put more pressure on the club. And that’s a legitimate point, no doubt. But as Mo said in her review, “complication is not complexity”. Rather than adding to our understanding of the original sin of this biker club, “Sons” is adding on external problems that often fail to reveal the source of its inner problems. Scene upon scene in season four pushed these characters seeming inexorably to that source, only to back away inches away at the last moment then. Once that pattern is established, it’s difficult to make any future pressure cooker scenarios make the pulse pound.
Will I stop watching this show? Absolutely not. But at the moment, I am watching more for the quality of the actors rather than the quality of the characters. That distinction may not matter to some, but it’s central to my overall enjoyment of a television show. The time to hail Hunnam, Perlman, Coates, and the always stellar Maggie Siff and Katey Segal is in post-episode analysis, not in-episode viewing. And there’s always the chance the show’s storytelling will suddenly click again and return the show’s primal power to my viewing experience. The introduction of Smits and Perrineau could yield a thoughtful, complex exploration of generational violence, one that ties back into Jax’s search for the right way to balance his responsibilities as a club president and a husband/father. I’m willing to take that chance, make that leap, and spend time this Fall following this journey. But I’m also taking that journey with expectations lowered. The show’s done enough to keep me watching, but enough to keep me wary as well.
“Sons of Anarchy” returns to FX on September 11 at 10 pm EST.