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‘Sons of Anarchy’s’ drive to shock viewers rides into trouble

By From page B1 | October 19, 2012

“Not a lot of gray in this life, sweetheart,” said Katey Sagal’s Gemma Teller Morrow in a recent episode of FX’s “Sons of Anarchy.” “Extremes become average.”

It was a self-aware moment for a show on which a Northern California motorcycle club dabbles frequently in rape, murder, arson, physical assault, gun running, drug trafficking and Irish accents.

I’ve watched through Tuesday’s most recent episode, so those who prefer the element of surprise should take this as a cue to get on their bike and ride on out.

What keeps this show from being among the upper echelon of shows on television for me – a class I currently reserve for the likes of “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” – also is the thing that makes it FX’s most-watched program to date.

“Sons of Anarchy” splays itself out as pulp, a piece that is willing to make concessions on realism in order to heighten the drama and macabre details of its story.

The idea that the fictitious town of Charming – which would seem to be within comfortable riding distance of Rio Vista – could support such a side car of trouble on a regular basis requires an unbelievable suspension of belief.

We’re six episodes into this season and we’ve already watched such ghastly things as the daughter of a Son burned alive, one of its members beaten to death with a lead pipe and a prison guard bludgeoned to death with a musical snow globe.

In the same episode that Gemma told the club president’s wife, Tara Knowles (Maggie Siff), about how extremes become average, SOA enlisted a transgendered prostitute (“Justified’s” Walton Goggins in an unforgettable surprise appearance) to help blackmail a city council member.

What’s shocking about these things, after five seasons, is how expected they are.

I’m not complaining about the violence or shock value themselves. A common descriptor for the show is “gritty,” which could be considered a linguistic codeword for “bloody.” I shudder to think how the show’s body count goes.

My beef is that when violence, action and shock are on display on a weekly basis, the blunt force trauma of beating someone to death with a musical snow globe loses some of its impact.

This gripe is like ordering chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and a scoop of chocolate ice cream and complaining that there’s too much chocolate, but when that’s all that’s on the menu, it loses its flavor as time goes on.

Many consider the show’s second season to be its best, but I consider it the weakest because it was too pulp and tried to pack in too much – Gemma’s rape at the hands of a neo-Nazi group, kidnapped babies, porn studio rivalries, gang wars, car bombs, prison beatings, murdering innocents, bike chases and a frayed leadership stemming from the accidental death of a club member’s wife.

The accidental death was the first wife of Harry “Opie” Winston (Ryan Hurst). No family has felt the show’s commitment to brutality more than the Winstons, killing off, in order, Opie’s first wife, Donna (Sprague Grayden), Opie’s father, Piney (William Lucking) and, most recently, Opie himself.

Opie was dispatched as his club brothers watched via a brutal beating with a lead pipe inside prison walls as retribution for the death of a rival gang member. It was a signature moment for the show, yet, simultaneously, it felt like a waste of a great character.

On a show that bumps off people on a weekly basis, Opie became just another tally in “Sons of Anarchy’s” body count. In a more dignified manner than others – at least viewers saw the club mourn his death and the show feels the loss of his presence.

Viewers eventually start to expect the unexpected, so the big reveal at the end of the most recent episode – that its former president is secretly behind a rash of Charming home invasions and the accidental slaying of a sheriff’s pregnant wife – was a shock only to those who don’t pay attention.

It’s that type of reliance on death and destruction that is SOA’s signature and its greatest appeal, making it high-octane and a never-ending action movie. But it’s also its weakness, no matter how many concessions to a pulp-writing style a person is willing to make.

When the goal of every episode is to shock viewers, even the show admits, pushing to those extremes becomes as average as a motorcycle ride to the store.

To read more of Nick DeCicco’s blogs, visit http://dailyrepublic.typepad.com/forthoseabouttorock. Follow him on Twitter @ndeciccodr.

Nick DeCicco

Nick DeCicco

Nick DeCicco is the editor of the Tailwind and writes the pop culture blog/column For Those About to Rock. Before joining the DR staff in July 2007, DeCicco (pronounced Deh-CEE-Coh) worked at The Union in Grass Valley, Calif., and the Greeley Tribune in Greeley, Colo. A 2004 graduate of the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, DeCicco spends his free time attending concerts, listening to music, going to movies, traveling and hiking.

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  • JoLeeOctober 23, 2012 - 10:20 am

    I have to agree that the shock value on the show is becoming the average. Right out of the gate of this season there was carnage and it didn’t slow down until Opie was being buried. Then it picked right up where it left off, had that hilarious moment with Walt Goggins, and killed more people. I love this show even though I start each episode with the question “who are they going to kill this week?” I’ve got my Hopper timers set to record the show so when I’m at work I know it will be there when I get home. I kind of feel like the death of the prison guard’s wife was wasted and that Carla’s demise was a little strange. Why give her a story arc if she’s only going to die a few episodes later? My DISH co-worker thinks that this is just another look at how Gemma takes to ruining people’s lives and putting them in situations that are less than ideal. I think it’s a great point.

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