Sons of Anarchy

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Airdate: 10-11 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 3 (FX)

It's too easy to simply compare the harrowing new FX original drama "Sons of Anarchy" to "The Sopranos," with leather jackets and Harley-Davidsons replacing the tailored suits and pasta. No, the relentlessly grim and wrenching "Anarchy" is what you get when the thuggery quotient travels off the scale and it becomes nearly impossible to stomach spending time in the same room with the savage characters populating it.

The ambition and first-rate acting are impossible to miss during the first pair of 13 episodes. It serves up the superior production values that we've come to expect from a network that turns out consistent, envelope-pushing greatness ("The Shield," "Rescue Me," "Damages," "Nip/Tuck"). This biker-family crime saga emerges from its cocoon very much in that same FX quality mode. But in this case, the swaggering nastiness of this unredeeming clan leaves "Anarchy" a decidedly tough sell.

Disturbing and graphic and almost casually sadistic, the series breaks from the starting gate without the darkly comic edge that defined so many on "Sopranos." Everyone here is either too vile or weak to work up much compassion for.

Our leading man is Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam of "Children of Men" fame), a hothead with the kind of washboard abs and macho tattoos that make the ladies swoon. Jax is something of a rising star in the Sons of Anarchy motorcycle club operating out of the preciously named town of Charming, Calif. (it's supposed to be ironic). Our blond, brooding bad boy takes his marching orders from his stepfather, Clay Morrow (very nice work from Ron Perlman), a founding member of the cycle gang who's married to Jax's scary, ruthless mom Gemma (a performance by Katey Sagal that's so superb it's impossible to imagine she ever played Peg Bundy).

The pilot and second installment are written by creator and executive producer Kurt Sutter, who also happens to be Sagal's real-life husband. But again, she's so terrific in the role that if this is nepotism, it's clearly the good kind. Sutter packs the early episodes with colorful dialogue but at the same time so much random violence that it crosses the line to gratuitous.

This "club," you see, is actually just an organized criminal front for a gun-running business, and Sutter appears to have missed the memo about a little subtlety going a long way. It isn't enough that there's ferocious conflict seemingly every five minutes; we also have to endure beatings of jarring brutality, decomposing bodies, incinerating corpses and the shattering of bones for every perceived challenge (both real and imagined).

Co-directed with high-voltage intensity by Allen Coulter and Michael Dinner, the opening hour struggles to draw a dichotomy between the hard-core violence and a newborn fighting for its life. Jax is the baby's father. The mother, a crank-addicted junkie, is played by none other than Drea de Matteo, who portrayed Adriana on "Sopranos." The second episode, directed by "Hill Street Blues" alumnus Charles Haid, is somewhat more effective in attaching a rhyme and reason to the ceaseless violence -- or at least a reason, anyway. And the reason is: they're paranoid, immoral bastards. Call it "Uneasy Riders."

Maggie Siff, who was so good on Season 1 of AMC's "Mad Men," is equally effective here as a pediatric doctor charged with saving the aforementioned damaged infant's life. Unfortunately, in "Anarchy," the baby is the only human whose existence is worth more than a cup of coffee at Denny's. And that -- no matter the show's undeniable qualitative merits -- makes it challenging to embrace.


Production: Fox 21 and FX Prods. Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Katey Sagal, Ron Perlman, Maggie Siff, Tommy Flanagan, Drea de Matteo, Kim Coates, Johnny Lewis, Mark Boone Jr., Mitch Pileggi, Theo Rossi, Ryan Hurst, Taryn Manning. Executive producers: Kurt Sutter, John Linson, Art Linson, James D. Parriott. Producer: Kevin G. Cremin. Associate producer: Craig Yahata. Writer: Kurt Sutter. Directors: Allen Coulter, Michael Dinner, Charles Haid. Director of photography: Paul Maibaum. Production designer: Anthony Medina. Costume designer: Kelli Jones. Editors: Hunter M. Via, Jordan Goldman, Jacques Gravett. Sound mixer: Tim Cooney. Casting: Wendy O'Brien

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