With the kidnapping of Jax’s son in last year’s finale of “Sons Of Anarchy” [Tuesdays/10pm], the question became one of sanity and structure within the club. Either the VP would fall apart or he would step up to the plate again. The interesting element about the first two episodes of the new season of “Sons Of Anarchy” is how much Kurt Sutter understands the psychosis of Jax (played with quiet and rage-filled solitude by Charlie Hunnam), who is a man on his way to ruin at an eventual point. Like “The Godfather” story of biker gangs [which I made reference to in the first season], the key within this story is loyalty and betrayal. While the essence of Clay’s involvement in the killing of his father still brims on the edges of Jax’s mind, the kidnapping of his 8-month old son at the end of last season brimming into the initial episodes of this season begins to pull him apart. He was the strong one and what is interesting as the possibilities unfold is how people change around him.
Katey Sagal’s character Gemma, who is engaged in problems of her own, is being kept in the dark which is going to have vicious repercussions in terms of trust. Maggie Siff’s character Tara who is Jax’s girlfriend also is really coming into her own. The transformation is allowing her to become the matriarch-in-training which is ultimately the irony of this series. It is the women who will ultimately pull the strings. Charlie Hunnam continues his journey as this man, this former boy searching out answers. He knows right from wrong. He knows the code. He is conflicted. He begins this season by trying to push Tara away but there is also a hesistancy which ultimately could get him killed. Jax is the character through which people from their homes see this world. As an actor, you can see Hunnam’s method progression. He lives this entire mode of thought. Having met him when he made “Green Street Hooligans” long before “Sons”, there was always that intensity in him much like Heath Ledger. This is what fuels “Sons”. Seeing Jax in the shower in almost utter catatonia because of the supposed loss of his son Abel (not a random name choice) balanced with a later moment in Episode 2 where Clay (the stoic presence of the great Ron Perlman) tells Jax that he knows what he is feeling but he has to give a show of power and confidence to “The Club” shows the other core element at the heart of the show: the psychology of power. “Sons” continues to surprise with exceptional verve in the opening episodes of its 3rd season. Out of 5, I give it a 3 1/2.
As the new fall season enters in texture, the returning shows entering display a differential that plays the same with an added sense of knowing. With the cable networks still outpacing in general story, the writers on all sides are keeping their intensity at a high level which shows in the first inferences of the new.
Mad Men The key with this show is allowing the characters to breathe with finesse. The greatness of the show lies in its ability to let you watch the characters’ thoughts unfold with the knowledge that it might not work for them in the end. Don Draper continues to move in mysterious ways and his interaction with the would-be Conrad Hilton sends him on a disnomer of emotional proportions just when he seems to be finally bringing things under control. Don’s by-the-wayside Rockwell type moment with his daughter and newborn son show both the inevitability but also the paradox of the American Dream. As his relationship disentegrates with Roger over what should be a tryst and Cooper pulls a dark card to make him sign a contract, the walls seemingly are starting to close in again. Don is a MacGuffin more than ever. Add to this a rich surrounding of women between his wife (played with just the right amount of knowing by January Jones) who is looking for life extension especially after the death of her father to Peggy (played by an increasingly aware Elizabeth Moss) who continues to rise up the corporate ladder acting like one of the boys and finding her true rhythm in business deals. Also one must not forget Joan (played with distinctive knowing by Christina Hendricks), an exceptional shark in her own right who makes a decision based on traditional values that is inevitably biting back at her. There are also so many other characters that are secondary that are simply being ignored at times because the main proponents are so engaging and allowed to develop organically. This is the show’s great gift: its ability to create the essence of time while seemingly moving the story along without being rushed.
Sons Of Anarchy This story operates in an antithetical way because it is about instinctual, visceral and primal elements not shrouded by stiff suits (although Adam Arkin is giving it a run for its money). Last season, the culimation of Jax’s perception of Clay as a divisive change in the rule of the club made him a bit of a tragic hero. Kurt Sutter, who also worked on “Deadwood”, has created a modern family story shrouded in love, death, crime and brotherhood within a story about a biker club with killer follow through. He had the series run at an incessant pace with an almost “Godfather” exit in the finale last season. The thing about Sutter is that he doesn’t pull the punches. Gemma, played by Katey Sagal (who is also Kurt’s real life wife), is put through the wringer in the first episode that completely changes the dynamic of the season in an instant. Sagal takes on a whole different dimension in a sharp turn in terms of the choices she needs to make. This directly affects her life with Clay, who has secrets of his own, not the least of which is that he ordered the botched murder of an innocent woman in trying to kill one of his own men. Ron Perlman told me at TCAs that playing the role of Clay can be very uncomfortable. He likes Charlie [Hunnam] who plays Jax like a son so he says it is hard for them to go at each other with such thinly veiled hate. That for him is the challenge. People are pushing themselves on the show. Even in the first four episodes of this season, you can see Charlie Hunnam simply melding into the role but the fact of how he can modulate between the life of the club and the life at home with his re-united childhood sweetheart as well as his new son comes off as heartbreaking because you know something bad is going to happen as time goes on. This show has Emmy written on it simply because of the performances, especially Charlie. Even the way his girlfriend in the series has to assert herself in the politics and alpha female intensity of the club’s dealings to retain her man is great. The power here lies in the women which is a phenomenally underlying truth. This to me in a plethora of good TV is one of the most cutting edge shows out there because it doesn’t need a high concept to make exceptionally riveting. And where it is going is ratcheting up.
Fringe At the end of last season, a new world unfolded before the eyes of the audience and of agent Olivia Dunham (played by Anna Torv). As the new mythology evolved, the story aimed to jump start the stakes. Whereas Jared Harris (who is also on “Mad Men”) led her to a bit of ruin last season, the key here is unfolding a showing an intensity of will, which seems to come to fruition when Anna emerges from nowhere into the world almost dead in the opening moments of the season opener. It is Peter Bishop (played with restrained authorship by Joshua Jackson) that takes control and finds a way to make the division work under threat of shutdown. The relationship between Peter and his father Walter (played with delicious inventiveness by John Noble) is really starting to anchor the series. There is a degree of connection that is starting to be apparent and the humor definitely is getting a following. At one point Walter is doing an autopsy but is having his assistant help him make pudding at the same time. There is just something in that paradox that makes it work. The cornerstone in terms of the drama does revolve around Dunham but a smile or two (like in “Castle”) works miracles. The crux with her that keeps developing is her relationship with men and the betrayal of her trust (which continues to happen). Her relationship with her former partner now dead motivated her last season. This year, the problem rests in her close friend inside at FBI who is not who she believes him to be. The shake up of this structure will continue to affect her both personally and professionally. In terms of mythology versus stand alone, the alternation continues. The second episode actually includes a Gollum-like creature as if something out of “Children Of The Corn”. “Fringe” shows that it is mixing it up but the ultimate personification of William Bell is still the focal point with [Leonard] Nimoy nowhere in sight yet with his presence still lingering. It is just a matter where this story leads since the danger is of the mythology becoming too intrinsic. The show has infinitely more potential than “Warehouse 13” yet that show already has distinct control over its trajectory which in turn creates the effectiveness and clarity in ways of its storylines. “Fringe” needs to simply optimize its machine which it has the power to do.
Parks & Recreation At the end of the abbreviated last spring introduction of this “Office” type mockumentary, its charm had not yet settled in. It was seemingly trying a little harder than it should have. However, the texture has seemed to relaxed heading into its fall progression. Having not watched “The Office” at its inset, the ability to see this show from inception focalizes that the inherent nature of it rests in creating the situation in an offset manner to the character development. The relationships in last season seemed to be more of a focal point whereas the starting point of this new season works because it makes use of events in each of the episodes to motivate the characters which inevitably works much better in terms of structure. The first episode has Amy Poehler’s character mistakenly marrying two male penguins at a function at a zoo seemingly creating a gay rights issue. The trouble that she and her Indian Carolina-born associate get into trying to live it down ends up involving a party where she is heralded as Queen. Another subsequent episode has Poehler discovering what is supposedly “marijuana” growing in the community garden she planted. While she is cultivating the garden, her associate is getting a suntan on a reclining chair nearby. It is just a perfect balance of earnestness and sheer ridiculous humor perpetrated by these two lead characters. There are couple more characters establishing themselves slightly but with the exception of Poehler’s boss pulling something in the most recent episode, there hasn’t been anything to truly diversify the rest of the cast in true form yet. But according to most, it took “The Office” in the US a couple seasons to get in stride. The question becomes will the ratings here be good enough in general to allow for that kind of possible success. Poehler fuels the show and the writing is starting to know what it needs to be so there is possibility but not quite yet.
The key with these first 4 returning shows is their different levels of intention and acceptance and how each is purveying its individual trajectory. “Mad Men” can make its story work while looking effortless in terms of character and interweaving storylines which has caused it to hit a stride of sorts in its third season after two exceptional seasons before. “Sons Of Anarchy”, in terms of energy, burns brighter with a sense of Shakespearean tragedy but rivals “Men” at times in terms of mythic perception even though it has not gotten anywhere near the kudos of the former. It however seems very steady in its identity and knowing what it needs to be. “Fringe” is a good show that is still very much finding its focus while discerning its balance between mythology and stand alone and between drama and biting humor leading towards the direction it is choosing. “Parks & Recreation” is a much simpler creature but, in the beginning of its second season, is realizing the the story/situation must take precedence and the character arcs will naturally follow. However, all in all, positive progressions for all involved, some more than others, but all showing a tightening of ranks.
In comparison to Fox proper, FX has always been about darker elements and pushing what is available on basic cable. This has not been more prevalent lately than in the criminal family drama “Sons Of Anarchy”. With new elements in the way in terms of animation (“Archer”) and a new drama: “Lawman” from “Speed” writer Graham Yost, the expansion of the interesting continues.
Archer This new animated series, with a bit of the flash structuring in its edgy demeanor, comes from the mind of Adam Reed who was the madman behind “Frisky Dingo” and “Sealab 2021” on Cartoon Network, In translating to FX, the key becomes sizing and viciously attacking the demo making them see things your way. The concept of the series is based in espionage in the style of “Mission Impossible” and “Man From U.N.C.L.E” but with a bit of heinous characterization. Archer, played by H. Jon Benjamin (who has also done voices forr “Assy McGee” and “The Venture Brothers”, both on Cartoon Network), is a hero who has mommy issues. He is sent back to the office and now has to deal with his ex, Lana, an oversexed and seemingly vindictive co-worker played by The Boondocks’ Aisha Tyler. Hijinks ensue.
Reed says he likes taking familiar genres and subverting them as much as possible. You build on the backdrop and then skew it as badly or horribly as you can. The most important relationship in the series for him is between Archer and his mom. It undermines everything. FX seemed like a good fit for it and Reed thought so after seeing “Its Always Funny In Philadelphia” which is one of his favorite shows. He says that the spying is hard to animate so they just don’t do it a lot of the time. In terms of his background, he never went to school for this. Cartoon Network was his training ground and, in his own admission, animation cuts you a lot of slack.
People can do very bad things but you have to have your characters doing even worse. It has to be completely divorced from reality. Reed also hints that Ron Perlman who is on the TCA FX Press Tour with “Sons Of Anarchy”as well talked to him at the party for Fox the night before about playing a villain on the show. Reed seems to love that.
Aisha Tyler reflects that Lana was drawn before she came to the project…but the girl was stacked, and she seemed to like it. Tyler says there has been a lot of cackling in the booth. The aspect of doing these type of animation projects is that you can say and pursue angles of dialogue that you could never get away with in live action. Beyond that though, she says that there is a beauty to the animation in “Archer” much like “The Boondocks” but in a different way.
The key is the balance between the subversive, the comedy and the through progression on the series. While this style might have worked on Adult Swim, transitioning it into a larger world and staying there requires planning and effectiveness. Time will tell. The show does not have a premiere date yet but will likely be sometime in the fall.
Sons Of Anarchy This show came out of nowhere last year. I had rounded up a lot of episodes and, on a plane trip back from overseas, watched a lot of them back to back. Seeing the progression within, there is intense visceral nature to the show. It blends at kind of grounded darkness with elements of classical-based character dramas, most similarly to “The Godfather”. This is a show undeniably about family beyond anything else. Love is a hard thing and these these people beat it to death while still still staying the course: protect the club (in this case Sam Crow) at all costs.
Creator Kurt Sutter who is married to series co-star Katey Sagal, doesn’t pull his punches. The darkness that she has to confront in the premiere of the second season alone apparently changes a lot of things. Kurt wants to believe that the way he pushes the envelope is never gratuitous but instead grittingly real and engaging. The premiere he says creates an emotional engine for Sagal’s Jemma and creates the season’s overarching progression. Sending Jemma on a spiritual path is a tricky and ultimately a personal progression. The importance of family is paramount but, at times, you have to take creative liberties to make it work. Emotions dont happen in a vacuum and with these kind of characters. The kickback, as a result, is unbelievable.
Charlie Hunnam, who plays Jax, creates an organic and ultimately brilliant characterization of a young man caught between two worlds. The way he is able to play both viciousness, conscience, violence and love, all within a certain time is phenomenal. But this is only possible because of the cast around him. After the panel I talked one-on-one with Ron Perlman for nearly 15 minutes. He and Charlie are good friends off set and he sees something so soulful, good natured and brilliant in this kid that it is very hard when they really have to go at it which he says is even more hard edged this season. This world for Ron is uncomfortable to play and that is the challenge of it. The physicality of the this man Clay he plays, the emotional structure, the notion of leadership…all these figure into it. It is another in a string of wonderful career moves for Perlman following such iconic roles in “Hellboy” and “City Of Lost Children”. He says his fortune is blind luck and when Kurt came to him on this role, there was just a power to it. He also says that the premiere episode changes the relationship among many, especially with Jemma, his wife, played by Sagal, For him he said it is quite a ride, scary but fulfilling.
Charlie says that evolving Jax is the structure of the setting that the character finds himself in. He has spent times with guys who live that style and you learn. He says that his best friend went to Sturgis in North Dakota which is one of the biggest bikers rallies in the nation and that the show is embraced by many in the biker community. In terms of the throughline, Jax is steadfast as he has been all along. His allegiance lies with the club and his future lies within the club, whatever form it may take.
The women on the show are very strong which is another aspect that very much elevates the show above others. Kurt says that there are multiple women in the writing room and that perspective is necessary, especially in such a testosterone fueled show. Maggie Siff, who plays Tara who is in love with Jax and ultimately is pulled into his life, knows how intense it can be. In mentioning a killing scene in a bedroom during the first season, she says that that was a severe edge they have to walk and sometimes cross.
Kurt told me later that they had to make adjustments to that scene to get it past the censors because after Jax kills Kohn who is the man stalking Tera, they make love but they (the writers and the production) had to make it so the bloody body of Kohn was half in the bathroom and not in the room with them. Kurt thought that this little fact, just because of the irony, was amusing
Katey says that while she and Tara still go to a head, there is more of an understanding between them in terms of love for Jax but the key is that Tara understands one thing: always protect the club. Sagal also said the six weeks she had to exist in this new structure that her character undergoes was difficult since they have to go home to their kids (Kurt is her husband). The series is not for the faint of heart but its effectiveness speaks volumes.
Show Runners Panel In an interesting amalgamation, FX brought together the bulk of their showrunners to discuss the status of the industry and their part within in. With the Leno debate of 10pm skewing a lot of scripted programming, basic cable is the last stand against a new order. With USA and FX taking the forefront along with AMC, the stand off is approaching, Graham Yost, whose new series “Lawman” starring Timothy Olyphant, premieres later in the fall, says that because they shot the pilot late, already 40 people in terms of writers had been put out by the NBC decision. He had had a previous series at that network which had been cancelled before the last shows aired, The episodes ended up doing OK and they thought about making more but the team had already dispersed. His philosophy is when you are doing good, think about the worst thing that you have done…and prepare for that. Kurt Sutter, who runs “Sons Of Anarchy”, again pulls no punches saying that NBC is “the one to hate right now”. He doesn’t know what is going to happen. However, in his perspective the move put a lot of people on leave which, in his opinion, “sucks”.
Todd Kessler, who runs the Glenn Close-starrer “Damages”, says that a year from now we will have a very different conversation. It might not work out. The one thing he does cite about FX is that when they give you a 13 episode order, you get to make the 13 and not worry about ratings until after the fact. Some other networks, NBC among them, do not guarantee the full airing or even production at times. Kessler says that, by comparison, FX has been true to their word and stood by them,
Peter Tolan, who runs “Rescue Me” with Denis Leary, addresses the aspect of time shifting and DVR watching as a deterrent, pointing to the fact that a very small portion of the audience actually watches every episode of your show. He spotlights that NBC (which is now a center of discussion) was known for very elegant work. He cites “Hill Street Blues” as a prime example. He says now that there is not as much spirit as in evidence there. Personally, he doesn’t care when the audience is watching as long as they “are” watching. Tolan highlights that the business is cyclical and reality will come down.
Shawn Ryan, who was the show runner on “The Shield” and recently took over NBC’s “Lie To Me” starring Tim Roth, speaks about the attention and hand holding at FX compared to other networks. He says that the notes are comparable to the writing on the episode. If something needs to be changed, it usually makes sense. It starts new with each show. This year he is new on “Lie To Me” and they are trying new stuff so Fox’s eyeballs are on them. His perception with the Leno 10pm quandry is the perspective of the value of a show after it has aired. He says that “Heroes” is a good example. Even though it is expensive, it has significant value overseas. When these shows work, they make a lot of money. He suggested we (the TV journalists) put NBC’s “feet to the fire” and take them to task. He says that the key is to do more development and make more successful shows. Originally in the list of important things when making a show, hiring a writer was 6th. Now with the success specifically of “CSI”, that is changing.
The future is coming. But, of course, that too, is a matter of perspective.