'Mayans MC': TV Review

With all the macho posturing and torture, 'Mayans' badly needs a Gemma.
9/4/2018

Kurt Sutter returns to the world of 'Sons of Anarchy' with a similar motorcycle drama that initially fails to develop characters, especially female ones, in a sea of narrative chaos.

Premiering nearly four years after Sons of Anarchy rode off (figuratively) into the sunset, long-awaited spinoff Mayans MC putters onto the scene an expectation-defying surprise. Mayans MC revels in narrative economy and an exploitation-free approach to violence and its consequences. The drama avoids macho posturing, familiar genre tropes and over-reliance on soundtrack choices for momentum, and it might end up confusing and alienating the devoted Sons of Anarchy fans who stuck around to the very end.

Nah.

I'm just messing with you.

Created by Kurt Sutter and Elgin James, FX's Mayans MC is basically exactly what you'd expect. Unjustifiably bloated, superficially obsessed with torture and the trappings of manly swagger and boasting enough story in the two episodes sent to critics to fill a full season of a more contemplative show, Mayans MC finds the brand slightly invigorated by a new cultural context, but fails utterly to replicate or even emulate much of what Sons of Anarchy actually did best.

Set several years after the end of Sons of Anarchy, the spinoff focuses on J.D. Pardo's Ezekiel "EZ" Reyes. Once a promising scholar blessed with an eidetic memory, EZ spent several years in prison after killing a cop (with extenuating circumstances) and has now taken his place as a prospect in the Santo Padre branch of the show's eponymous motorcycle club. The Mayans are familiar to Sons of Anarchy fans from the Oakland, Calfornia, charter fronted by Emilio Rivera's Alvarez, one of a couple established SoA faces that make appearances in the new show.

EZ is following in the Mayans footsteps of brother Angel (Clayton Cardenas), which seems to concern his father, Felipe (Edward James Olmos), a well-respected local butcher. He's avoiding his high school flame Emily (Sarah Bolger), no longer a romantic part of his life, but still in his sphere and offering constant reminders that EZ doesn't really need, what with the whole eidetic memory thing.

As a collective, the Mayans are in an uneasy alliance with the Galindo cartel, following the orders of mercurial Miguel (Danny Pino), son of a Mexican kingpin now violently overcompensating to buck a reputation as an Ivy League egghead. The cartel, after years of moving drugs across the border smoothly, is facing pushback from a Mexican vigilante group, which may test the Mayans' loyalties.

Almost anything else I could tell you about the plot is treated in the pilot as a twist, even though the chance of anybody being surprised by just about anything is close to nil. The first episode, running an absurd 67 minutes, has at least three alleged twists that could have capped off a tighter hour of television, but instead the pilot keeps resetting the playing field and undermining character relationships that we never had time to understand in their original form. Sutter likes chaos, and the first two Mayans MC episodes exhibit the kind of ill-formed structure that marred the end of Sons of Anarchy's run when FX lost the ability or the desire to insist on helping the show take form within traditional TV form and limitations. With the channel now also taking a laissez-faire attitude toward swearing, you won't be surprised to learn that Sutter is having a fucking ball.

Sons of Anarchy started off as a tidy show. When it premiered, it was Hamlet with motorcycles and, by borrowing from The Bard, the show's basic dramatic stakes were immediately clear and stayed that way for a long time. Whatever else happened in the show (for a long while), the dynamic among Jax, stepfather Clay and mother Gemma was tremendous and fundamentally grounding even if an increasing number of diffuse issues were going batshit crazy all around that center. All three characters existed in shades of gray and defied easy hero/villain categorizations, yet Jax remained a protagonist in that his actions, even when they followed Hamlet's indecisive template, pushed the drama along, for better or worse.

For all that Mayans MC adores shades of gray, it treats every one of its characters as pieces to be moved relentlessly around the chess board by their creators, not as people with motivations or agency of their own. Pardo is an assertive presence and he'd be a fine lead were EZ not weighed down by a surplus of too-predictable motivations and allegiances in the place of characteristics. Maybe EZ's intelligence and memory will become important eventually? For two hours, they're used by the writers to enable flashbacks and as a time-saving device, because why have characters go through any process or journey that would take away time that could be spent on those things fans probably expect from this brand?

Torture runs rampant through the first two episodes, played for twisted humor and just a ghoulish hunger for dismemberment and pain. Child endangerment, a card Sons of Anarchy played with cavalier frequency and diminishing returns, also rears its unpleasant head. The opening episodes include a wide variety of violence, including an overlong shootout in a cemetery and a chase that climaxes in a corny car jump like something out of The Dukes of Hazzard, but part of the problem with anonymous and wide-ranging violence is that there's no real way for it to leave a psychological mark. As presented here, I guess we're just supposed to accept that violence is a banal way of life in this world, which is probably true and probably renders every action unremarkable. It's some relief that Mayans MC doesn't wallow in sexual violence in the first two episodes, though that's probably something being held in the arsenal for later on.

It'd be wise for Mayans MC to avoid sexual violence in the short term, both for reasons of restraint and because as of now the lack of nuanced female characters is probably the show's biggest fault. The motorcycle club world is one defined by masculine energy, so one of Sutter's smartest decisions on Sons of Anarchy was making sure that Gemma was the show's most carefully defined character and that Tara was close to her equal. You can get away with a lot of interchangeably scruffy men whose every line of dialogue boils down to dick measuring or dick measuring adjacent if you can say, "Yes, but the show's most complicated figures are women" and that was the case from the pilot. Here, Bolger's Emily is a porcelain-skinned prop and Carla Baratta's Adelita is the only other woman who comes close to registering.

The interchangeably scruffy men predominate, with the clear and welcome distinction that most of the cast is Latino. By virtue of his American Crime pedigree, Richard Cabral stands out a little as a biker named El Coco, and Edward James Olmos stands out by virtue of being Edward James Olmos. Otherwise, you'll probably only remember supporting players based on things they've done previously, so for my part that meant Michael Irby and the great Tony Plana, though I couldn't tell you much about either of this drama's characters.

Mayans MC stands out from its predecessor most when it's spending time in the vicinity of the border. Episodic structuring appears to involve natural creatures capable of moving back and forth between Mexico and the U.S., with a mangy dog bookending the pilot and scorpions featuring heavily in the second episode. Our heroes, however, don't move as freely between worlds, which is partially meant to be ironic. Though the Galindos might use economic privilege to pass freely from Mexican wealth to American opulence, the Mayans navigate in subterranean tunnels and are most comfortable in barrios and refugee tent shanties, and despite expectations, they don't even all speak Spanish.

The language, geography and poorly constructed dividing fences are inherently political, and it remains to be seen if Mayans MC will do something interesting with these elements or if Sutter and James will be content to let their new show just be a lesser version of their old one, only with a different accent.

Cast: J.D. Pardo, Clayton Cardenas, Edward James Olmos, Sarah Bolger, Michael Irby, Carla Baratta, Antonio Jaramillo, Raoul Max Trujillo, Richard Cabral, Danny Pino
Creators: Kurt Sutter and Elgin James
Premieres: Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (FX)

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