'Sons of Anarchy': Making a case for TV violence

Associated Press
This image released by FX shows Katey Sagal as Gemma Teller-Morrow, left, and Ron Perlman as Clay Morrow in a scene from "Sons of Anarchy."  The series airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. EST on FX. (AP Photo/FX, Prashant Gupta)
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This image released by FX shows Katey Sagal as Gemma Teller-Morrow, left, and Ron Perlman as Clay Morrow in a scene from "Sons of Anarchy." The series airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. EST on FX. (AP Photo/FX, Prashant Gupta)

NEW YORK (AP) — I want to pay tribute to TV violence.

In particular, I want to celebrate "Sons of Anarchy," FX network's bloodthirsty and brilliant drama series about a motorcycle gang. (It airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. EST.)

Now I don't make a habit of championing violence, even make-believe violence on my TV screen. On the contrary, I count myself among those viewers who stew about the excess of violence on TV. Almost every scripted drama, it seems, habitually embraces violence in its storytelling.

And more to the point, gun violence. With TV drama, guns are standard issue, a staple of the storytelling lexicon. (How many, or rather how few, TV dramas you can name where guns aren't part of the act?)

Debates about TV violence have raged since TV began and usually go nowhere, bogging down in a jumble of the First and Second Amendments. That is, viewers feel constitutionally guaranteed the right to bear arms — and to be entertained by watching others who bear them. Then, with every new outbreak of real-world gun violence, the debate is reignited and the media scapegoated. Nothing is resolved.

This is not to say that certain violence-prone shows don't manage to fly under the radar. Some do it by shrouding themselves in righteousness. Consider "Law & Order: SVU," a have-it-both-ways series that for 14 seasons has luxuriated in violence as something to be condemned while, at the same time, titillating viewers with the sex crimes it wallows in.

Similarly, the "CSI" franchise savors violence retroactively, back in the lab, with graphic deconstructions of each weekly episode of violence.

But it's not all gratuitous violence on TV. A relative handful of dramas earn immunity, as well as acclaim, by putting violence in the service of higher truths. Think of great shows like "The Sopranos," ''Boardwalk Empire," ''Breaking Bad" or "The Shield."

And add "Sons" to the list of hard-hitting series that justify their violent eruptions with the larger stories they tell.

Simply put, "Sons" is a family/workplace drama. It tells of a motorcycle club — the Sons of Anarchy, or SAMCRO — set in the ironically named California town of Charming, where its members do business in drugs, porn and gunrunning while they grapple with rival gangs, shifting alliances and, of course, the law.

In the home stretch of its fifth season, "Sons" by now has spun a sprawling mythology that even included a past story arc set in Northern Ireland. But the saga centers on this family trio: Jax (Charlie Hunnam), his mother, Gemma (Katey Sagal), and her husband, Clay (Ron Perlman), once the club's president.

More recently, Jax has seized the throne from Clay, his stepfather. This has set in motion a Shakespearean-like battle for power that seems sure to end with one of them slaying the other.

Meanwhile, Jax is strategizing how to move the club into more legitimate pursuits. But as he readily admitted on last week's episode, any path of reform "is gonna be bloody, bro."

"Sons" has always been bloody, and then some.

A few seasons ago, a band of white separatists sent SAMCRO a "message" by abducting Gemma, the club's matriarch, and, in a grisly sequence, gang-raping her.

Early this season, the daughter of a SAMCRO member was burned alive while he was forced to watch the horrid killing helplessly.

And just last week, Big Otto, a SAMCRO member who's on death row, viciously stabbed to death a prison nurse with his contraband crucifix. But however shocking, this scene had a sound dramatic purpose. Like other violence on "Sons," it propelled the narrative in yet-to-be-seen ways. An act of complex retribution against Jax, Otto's scheme was as diabolical as it was depraved, and it will fuel future plot twists. Nothing on "Sons" takes place in isolation.

The recurring character Otto is played by Kurt Sutter, whose more prominent roles on "Sons" are as its creator, writer and executive producer (and who, by the way, is married to Katey Sagal).

Sutter says the initial concept for "Sons" was aimed at exploring "what a family dynamic looks like in a subculture that has its own set of rules, its own governing body, its own lifestyle — yet faces some of the same daily challenges we all do."

Jax seems intent on eventually escaping this criminal life with his longsuffering wife (Maggie Siff) and their two sons.

"I see an end," Jax told her last week.

But Sutter doesn't see an end to "Sons" for at least two more seasons, which surely means more struggle and bloodshed for Jax and company.

That's good news for the series' audience, which has grown steadily season by season, currently averaging 6.6 million viewers weekly.

"There's a pulp quality to my show that allows me to push the boundary and tell some bigger-than-life stories," Sutter says. "But what grounds the story is that we see the ramifications of the bad things the characters do. That creates a sense of karmic responsibility for what we're putting out there. It doesn't feel so much like, 'Oh, there's just violence for violence's sake, or sex for sex's sake.' Viewers understand how it fits into the bigger picture."

Part of the bigger picture is that, however engaging these ruffians may be — you just can't help rooting for Jax and his confederates, no matter how brutish their behavior — there's no glamourizing the lives they lead.

"The irony of this outlaw culture is that it's supposed to be all about breaking the rules and being free," says Sutter — yet the Sons are stricken by their own code of conduct. They remain trapped, on high alert and under constant threat. "It's not a life I would want to live," Sutter says with a laugh.

But it's a life that's fascinating to watch. For violence this raw and bracing, yet full of dramatic consequences, I've got just one thing to say about "Sons of Anarchy" every week: Hit me again!

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FX is owned by News Corp.

___

EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier

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