Last Night's Television: Sons of Anarchy, Bravo
Find me a Family, Channel 4
Thursday 14 May 2009
"Thank you for visiting Charming", reads a road sign at the beginning of Sons of Anarchy, a new Bravo import from the US that arrives with a mild buzz of success and a very noisy rasp of motorcycle engines. The point about Charming, population 14,679, is that quite a few of its citizens aren't, since this small California town is deep in the greasy pocket of the local biker gang, a fraternal brotherhood that makes its living by dealing guns to drug dealers, and does well enough out of this trade to pay the sheriff and the local fire department to look the other way. And though there was a time when these boys would have been the unequivocal black hats – a problem to be solved by a clean-jawed lawman – we live in an age of anti-heroes now, when it's the problems of society's problems that we're expected to empathise with. How tough it is when your crank-addicted partner prematurely gives birth to your son, for example, or the infuriating blockage in your supply chain that occurs when another crew torches one of your secret warehouses. Sons of Anarchy, in other words, is The Sopranos with a throbbing Harley between its legs.
It is also, and this is a mild surprise when it first dawns on you, Hamlet in black leather, with Charlie Hunnam playing the troubled prince, Jax, a young man who has a vigorous way with a pool cue, but is troubled by his father's early death and his mother's relationship with the gang's subsequent leader, Clay (Ron Perlman, unnervingly revealing just how little make-up he needed to play Hellboy). The ghost, should you be curious, takes the form of a box of memorabilia that Jax unearths in the family garage, a collection that includes his father's memoir, a document that reveals that dealing assault rifles to LA gangs did not lay at the heart of his vision of fraternal and essentially equable rebellion. As a gloss on Shakespeare's great work, though, Sons of Anarchy is not slavishly hung up on point-for-point correspondence. It's a bit hard to see Jax's ex-sweetheart (a paediatrician with a Sons of Anarchy tramp stamp concealed beneath her surgical scrubs) as any kind of Ophelia and Jax's mother seems to owe more to Lady Macbeth than to Gertrude, encouraging her second husband to get more malevolent and crowning her first episode by slipping a fatal overdose to her son's ex-wife.
You also sense that the line in Hamlet the scriptwriters really loved was the last one of all: "Go, bid the soldiers shoot". Because although Jax's twinges of longing for a kinder, less brutal life are a central part of the dynamic, the drama is hopelessly susceptible itself to the glamour of extreme violence. When Jax tooled up to recover the gang's missing guns – a sequence that was played as pathology in Scorsese's Taxi Driver gets an encore as the pornography of professional armament, a combat knife clicking into its sheath and the Velcro of the body armour slapped home in a crisp montage of manly preparation. And though Jax agonises over putting a bullet in his Latino business rivals, the drama itself plays violence for a sickly gleeful comedy. Among the things this drama counts as uncomplicatedly funny are an Asian Elvis impersonator moaning in character as he's savagely beaten up, and the mutilation of a dead body by pushing a stick of dynamite between its buttocks. Bravo may well feel that such touches fit its viewer demographic perfectly, but midlife crisis, fantasy bikers lured from terrestrial channels by the promise of heavy blues-rock and motorcycles might find it a touch too gamey.
Channel 4 has been behaving this week like a rich man who's just been told he's got days to live, abandoning thoughts of worldly things like ratings and turning its mind to higher matters, such as Find Me a Family, a three-part series about the plight of hard-to-place children in care. In last night's programme, the prejudice was running in two directions because the prospective adopters were a gay couple, John and Anthony, and even the most open-minded viewer might have started with some uncertainty about their suitability as parents, given that every hour of their day already seemed fully occupied with their dogs and horses. A shrewd young man on a panel of adopted children who interviewed them raised the possibility that they might be looking for a new and more elaborate pet.
In fact, they coped with touching tenderness when a disabled child came to stay for the weekend – an experience that successfully expanded their own notions of what they would be capable of taking on – and David Akinsanya's film ended with their decision to sell off some of their horses to make room for an adoptive child they had. If all birth parents were as thoughtful about their responsibilities we'd need a lot less adopters.
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