Sons Of Anarchy: the most overlooked drama since The Shield

Glen explains why Sons of Anarchy, starting its 6th season today, risks being eclipsed by its peers and why it richly deserves your time...

It’s a strong time for quality TV, this much is clear. For well over a decade, we’ve had drama that’s garnered considerable critical acclaim whilst being a ratings hit at the same time. Indeed, a number of contemporary shows are often in the conversation as to what the best TV program of all time is. With such praise being heaped upon a handful of shows, inevitably there will be some that are overlooked. 

One of the main hurdles for a viewer getting into a new series is the time commitment involved. If the premise or indeed the pilot doesn’t immediately grab you, then you may end up overlooking some quality television. This certainly applies to Sons of Anarchy; a show about a Californian motorcycle club might not be the easiest sell to some, but to dismiss it on face value would mean overlooking a series that boasts a great deal of dramatic sophistication and more than its fair share of edge-of-the-seat moments. 

After working as a producer, writer, director and actor on The Shield, Kurt Sutter created Sons of Anarchy for FX. Having spent a considerable amount of time with biker clubs as part of his research, Sutter was moved by the sense of loyalty and brotherhood he found there, and used this as the basis for his series. 

Even aside from the connection of its creator and cast members to The Shield – arguably FX’s finest ever show – Sons of Anarchy also shares similarities with its predecessor in that it faces incredibly stiff competition from output by a rival Network. In its time, The Shield was broadcast against HBO shows such as The Wire, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under

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Sons of Anarchy is up against a golden generation of quality drama but this time from AMC which boasts the likes of Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Walking Dead, shows that strike a healthy balance of rating success and considerable critical acclaim. It would also foolish to overlook competition from HBO’s rightly lauded Game of Thrones.

Such rich choice of course is great for viewers, but as mentioned, it means some shows are inevitably overlooked. I’m not suggesting that Sons of Anarchy is the show most starved for viewers of this TV generation as that’s not the case – it actually holds up quite well ratings-wise against some of the big hitters – but in terms of critical response, its scores are significantly lower. 

At its highest, Sons of Anarchy attracted 4.9 million viewers which made it the highest rated show in FX’s history surpassing the likes of The Shield and Nip/Tuck. This compares favourably to Mad Men which earned 3.5 million at its highest and Breaking Bad which before recent season five returning episode Blood Money captured 2.9 million viewers but now holds an impressive 5.9 viewer record. 

The true big hitters at the moment however are The Walking Dead which earned 12.4 million viewers at its highest point, and Game of Thrones which tops out at 14 million viewers. These are hugely impressive figures, but it’s also worth considering that both Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead have a built-in fan base from their pre-existing source material. The viewing figures from well promoted and received shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad demonstrate just how important a built-in fan base can be to a series. 

Of course, these figures don’t take into consideration people watching via streaming services, DVD sales and other means but it gives a decent-enough indication as to viewership. Another method of gauging how a show is received is to take a look at the metacritic scores for each. Obviously these are highly subjective but again indicate how a show is being received critically. For context, scores over 80 are considered as widespread critical acclaim.

Taking an average score recorded for the entire run of the shows mentioned, Breaking Bad is the highest rated show with a score of 88.6 helped by the current season having an incredible (and indeed justified) score of 99. Game of Thrones is in second place with a score of 85.6 with a highest score of 90, Mad Men is third with an average of 86.5, The Walking Dead has a score of 81.3 and Sons of Anarchy is last with 78.2. It’s worth pointing out seasons’ two to four all score over 80 but the average is hit by the first season scoring a 68 and the most recent season scoring a 72.

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Given that Sons of Anarchy is far from a critical darling, against such stiff competition it was always going to struggle when it came to awards recognition. It has received little in the way of nominations from major awards shows with Katey Sagal’s Golden Globe win for Best Actress for her work in the third season being its only big win to date. The Shield was more successful in terms of critical response which no doubt helped it fare better at awards shows; Michael Chiklis won Outstanding Lead Actor for the first season at the Emmys and overall, it won the Best Drama at the Golden Globes for the first series. The Shield would go on to receive a number of nominations throughout its run. 

So is Sons of Anarchy genuinely significantly weaker than its contemporaries, or is it simply underappreciated? Once the fog of Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones has cleared, will critics look back and re-evaluate its place on the TV drama continuum? 

Sons of Anarchy, like all good shows, is about so much more than its premise would suggest. Sure, the motorcycle club element is prominent as this is the family our protagonists (of sorts) are part of, and club duties and responsibilities dominate their day-to-day lives, but the dramatic depth of the show is really its selling point and the themes explored are more relatable than many would imagine. 

First and foremost, Sons of Anarchy is a family drama that in the nicest possible way has much in common with soap operas (as do a great deal of dramatic shows). Sutter himself has stated that whilst attending famed Hells Angel Sonny Barger’s funeral, a member of his charter said to him “It’s a soap opera, but it’s our soap opera”. It clearly resonates then, with members of clubs similar to that depicted in the show, a good sign of Sutter’s respect for those who inspired the series. 

It’s no big secret that aside from time spent with a similar motorcycle organisation, Sutter’s inspiration for character types and certain plot switch are directly inspired by Hamlet. This is evident in the dynamic between Clay (Ron Perlman), Gemma (Katey Sagal) and Jax (Charlie Hunnam). The step-father, mother, step-son dynamic has been explored often in popular culture and is a gold mine for drama which certainly helps to ground the show with relatable elements to go along with Sutter’s fondness for moments of extreme violence and heart breaking plot switch. Yes heart breaking. Sutter loves these characters, it shows in the way they’re developed, handled and given moments to shine. He loves his characters and he wants you to love them too.

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In a recent interview on Nerdist Charlie Hunnam spoke at length about Sutter grieving for a certain character in season five. Sutter was apparently in mourning for some time as though he had lost someone close to him. This demonstrates how seriously Sutter treats the material and how he’s all-in as creator and showrunner. Whilst he loves the characters he also recognises the need to make them suffer or indeed die in order for the show to work, particularly as the stakes have been raised season after season and it’s getting to the point where it’d wouldn’t be a surprise if any major character is killed off. 

The aforementioned death of a key character may have put a dim view on the fifth season for many, which could explain why its rating is the second lowest of the show’s run. Personally I find this hard to understand as I regard it as one of the stronger seasons which boasted the strongest finale since season two. The stakes were high, performances at an incredible standard, and the plot was expertly crafted, unpredictable and had a truly surprising pay-off. Watching the season again makes you appreciate Sutter’s attention to detail in every aspect of the grand plan he had in mind for the season. For me, the season showed Sutter at the height of his powers as he expertly created an edge-of-the-seat thrill ride with shocking and unpredictable turns and an incredibly satisfying finale that promises a very interesting final two seasons. 

Now, this may come as a surprise to you dear readers but I’m far from the motorcycle gang type and in all honesty the thought of riding a motorcycle terrifies me (largely due to my lack of coordination) so it’s not this aspect of the show that really hooks me in; it’s the dynamic between the well-developed, interesting characters and the rather extreme situations they find themselves in, whether it be as a result of best intentions being grossly misjudged or as a result of in-house politicking leading to characters being screwed over. It would of course be better for the club if Clay and Jax were on the same page and wanted the same thing for the club, but where would the fun be in that? Two people getting on swimmingly and pulling in the same direction hardly makes for a compelling show now does it? 

The struggle between Clay and Jax is partly generational but has more to do with their conflicting ideologies and what they want the club to be. Clay represents the old guard where ties with law enforcement were easily negotiated and the arms trade provided a lucrative source of income for the members of the club. Obviously arms dealing brings with it certain dangers and dealing with drug cartels and the IRA doesn’t leave a great deal of room for error. Now, not having much experience with either drug cartels or the IRA (shocking I know) I can’t say definitively whether the portrayals of said organisations are accurate, but if I was to hazard a guess I would say that their standing and influence are exaggerated for dramatic effect. Which is fine, a certain degree of suspension of disbelief is required in most forms of entertainment.

Jax recognises the dangers of gang being drug mules for cartels and gun runners and is conflicted as to whether the risk truly justifies the reward, particularly given the web of lies Clay has spun to get the club involved in such activity has put the club and their families in real danger. Add to that increased heat from authorities and youthful rebellion can’t be viewed as the main driving force behind Jax’s decisions. 

In the middle of this conflict are the members of the club themselves and their extended families. Sutter has one hell of a cast at his disposal filled with some damn fine character actors. William Lucking, Mark Boone Junior, Kim Coates, Tommy Flanagan among others really suit the look of a biker gang adding a sense of believability to their roles. 

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Whilst many are recognisable faces, their ability to sink into their roles and make their characters feel lived-in, believable and real is key to the show’s success. The majority of its characters are criminals who do some despicable things, but the fact that they’re relatable and easy to root for is testament to Sutter and his team’s excellent writing and character building. They don’t deal in black and white with these characters, rather they explore the various shades of grey available to them; as such, your allegiances to characters shift numerous times. 

There’s an end in sight for Sons of Anarchy. Sutter recently commented: “I have a sense of what I want the last scene of the show to be. How we’re going to get there and what that looks like, I’m not sure” and adding that the drama “continues to be Jax’s journey in terms of if can he be the leader of this outlaw organisation and still be a loving father and devoted husband.” The show will still clearly focus on the themes explored up to this point but with the way it’s been going, the future isn’t looking particularly bright for some of its characters.

Season six starts this week in the US, and anyone needing to catch up will find the first five seasons readily available on streaming services, meaning it requires little financial investment to give it a go. Hand it over just a few hours of your time, and in my experience, you’d be in the minority if you didn’t take to it. 

Sons of Anarchy is without doubt one of the finest shows around at the moment and certainly one that deserves to be mentioned alongside the other greats of this generation. Like the characters it depicts, it’s a little rugged and rough around the edges and as a result may seem unapproachable to some, but for those willing to give it a go they’ll be rewarded with drama of the highest standard.