Son's of Anarchy: Season One Blu-ray ReviewAugust 29, 2009
FX Network's Sons of Anarchy (September 2008 premiere) takes its namesake from an outlaw motorcycle gang who rule the fictional southern California town of Charming (they basically own the chief of police and preside as a paternal entity overseeing local justice). Helmed by Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman from Hellboy), the all-male members are tattooed, raucous and very violent with much in-fighting, boozing and rude behavior in their daily life (it is like belonging to a hard core fraternity even requiring prospects to go through initiation). Yet the loyal, tight knit group follows a code of conduct that informs members of their place within the internal hierarchy (ranks are even displayed on their leather vests) and defines their way of life in opposition to the legal system.
Having only caught random promos before absorbing the series on Fox's Blu-ray set, I was geared up for a modern day telling of the Wild Ones but instead got the Sopranos on Harleys. I am being a bit facetious, but if you have seen much popular media about "organized crime" then you are probably acquainted with many of Sons' touches. These include the balance between the weapons smuggling that provides the gang's income and the motorcycle club and repair shop acting as their public persona, rival gangs encroaching on territory and livelihood, being investigated by the feds, childhood friends who end up on opposite sides of the law and dealing with snitches. I will concede that it must be difficult to fictionally embody a coordinated criminal existence without incorporating some level of these details, but too frequently I just felt like I had been there and done that.
While I bemoan the predictability of many of the plot threads, what makes Sons of Anarchy a joy to watch is producer/creator Kurt Sutter's smartly written dialog (he was a writer/producer of the Shield, a gritty FX classic crime drama whose level of violence is actually trumped here) and the utterly believable acting embodying the relationships at the heart of this "family drama." The series sports a seriously impressive ensemble cast where even lesser characters play an integral role and do so in "spot on" fashion. Included are alumni from Mad Men, X-Files, CSI, Prison Break, Veronica Mars, Deadwood, 24, Sopranos and Jericho plus numerous movies. You may not always put a name to a face but, if you are a cinema and TV junkie, you will easily recognize 90% of the seasoned cast.
Clay's wife, Gemma (Katey Segal of Married With Children), is my personal favorite whose queen-like maternal aspect is indispensable to making the Sons the family they claim to be. Unlike most mob dramas, the Sons' "old ladies" are not kept half in the dark wondering where their finances originate and living hypocritical lives while turning a blind eye to their husbands' nefarious dealings. Whether keeping her man on track through comforting reassurance and a proverbial kick in the ass or defending her territory by delicately whacking some young competition in the face with a skateboard, Gemma's verve is infectious.
The most promising development as we lead into the second season is Jax (Charlie Hunnam from Children of Men), the thematic center of the series. Second in command, this troubled soul struggles to balance a prematurely born son from a drug addict wife, his passionate love for a recently returned ex-girlfriend who is ambivalent about the Sons' credo and the legacy (revealed through a secret manuscript) of his deceased father who founded the Sons. He finds himself in conflict with Clay's leadership due to the direction the club is evolving with increased criminal activity and suspected double-dealings that go against his father's more benign inspiration for social rebellion.
While Kurt Sutter has crafted an undeniably ambitious project, the thematically familiar ground the first season treads made me feel like I was one step ahead of many plot developments. The finale, bringing to a head Jax's dissatisfaction with the Sons' future, finally gave me the tense feeling of anticipation I had been craving over the season's previous 12 episodes. If Sons of Anarchy hopes to secure its legacy among the ranks of TV's classic serialized dramas, the series will need to grow in stature in its sophomore outing incorporating a less calculable narrative that melds with the commendable acting. Admittedly I am psyched to see how Jax's story progresses and am rooting for the show to fulfill the promise hinted at in its premiere season.
The 1.78:1 framed transfer showcases how great natively shot high-def footage can look with a 1080p AVC encode capturing the realistic, marginally subdued look of the series. Colors are nicely saturated, even though somewhat muted, with natural skin tones allowing you to notice differences in each actor's complexion. Detail is abundant most specifically in close-ups where you can make out the lines, crags and freckles on the actor's faces or the creases in the leather vests. No obvious digital artifacts or manipulation are apparent.
Where the transfer takes a hit is in nighttime or dimly lit indoor shots displaying weaker blacks and digital noise which some filmmakers feel adds a gritty texture but for my tastes does not produce the same aesthetic that film sourced grain does. One other nitpick is rare moments where the focus goes soft which would not be a huge issue if the overall HD quality was not so sharp in comparison. Still these complaints do not particularly detract from the commendable high-def image.
The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio serves up a good selection of rock, blues and country inspired tunes that support the outlaw theme of the show. Considering how integral dialog is to the series I was not surprised with its super clear delivery but rather at how much the center channel overpowered the rest of the presentation. I had no problems understanding anyone but was forced to level down the center to let the environmental effects in the fronts be heard.
The lossless audio provides decent moments of immersive surround use but little in the way of impressive panning or directionality. You will notice back channel presence for gunshots or cycles riding off, but it is most prominent when the song selections kick in with the rears really drawing your attention. While the transition from dialog to surround use could have been smoother, the soundtrack works pretty well for a TV series.
Additional audio is available in Spanish Dolby Digital 3.0 and subtitles are provided as English (SDH), French and Spanish.
Commentaries – Three commentaries are provided, one on each disc, for the pilot, episode 8 and the finale. It should be noted that there is nothing obvious on the menu of the first two discs to clue you in a commentary exists if you choose to play all episodes back to back. Sutter, the show's creator, hosts each track with various cast members culminating in the finale's commentary having 9 additional participants which is a bit much delivering a somewhat chaotic feel.
If you only have time to take in one, I would opt for the pilot's with Hunnam, Segal and Perlman reminiscing about shooting and comparing the aired pilot to what was originally shot. (Perlman was not the initial choice for Clay and every scene he is in was re-shot for the final product). There is much interesting banter about preconceived notions and research of motorcycle clubs and on set anecdotes with Sutter and the actors conveying palatable camaraderie soaked in self deprecating humor.
Making of Sons of Anarchy Season One (8:59, HD) – This featurette packs a lot of info in its short runtime though it still leaves you wanting more. The cast and producers talk about "outlaw culture" and the Shakespearean influences (Hamlet and Macbeth specifically) while the costume and set designers expound on their areas of expertise.
The Ink (4:50, HD) – Informs us of the artistic context of the ample tattoos utilized throughout. With a few exceptions, most actors' tats are temporary though lasting four days at a stretch.
The Bikes (7:08, HD) – Harleys are a mainstay in the show and we get details on what customization was done for each character's hog including mechanical design plus the artistic logos. Very interesting is that Perlman's bike weighed a thousand pounds and he infrequently laid it down requiring three people to lift it back up.
Casting Sons of Anarchy (14:47, HD) – Sutter and casting directors chime in on the experience of assembling the cast. The audition footage with actors trying out for the same parts and watching them act in character though not dressed for the part is great.
Deleted Scenes (35:08, SD) – This is what deleted scenes should be, outtakes so good that you wonder why they weren't included. There are 29 scenes in total (with a play all option) that inform us of background info such as the origin of Gemma's chest scar and who is flushing panties. Well worth watching.
Anarchy on the Set: Gag Reel (6:55, SD) – Though touted as a "gag reel" this is more a set of montages from shooting. There are random moments with filming goofs but it is mainly a collection of kisses, nose picking, hugs and dropping of f-bombs plus an extended montage of the majority of violence from the season. Entertaining, even if contrived.
Season One of FX Network's Sons of Anarchy aspires to be a worthy successor to the Shield yet does not reach the thematic heights Kurt Sutter's original series did. While I tremendously enjoyed the character portrayals and interactions (I really can't fault that aspect), the show does require improvement on the novelty of its plot themes, which the finale tantalizingly hints at.
Though the acting is top notch, it is hard to solidly recommend as essential viewing to the uninitiated at this juncture in the series (considering this will take up 9 plus hours of your life) as it might be worth waiting to see how the second season turns out. For fans, Fox's Blu-ray set is an easy recommendation with great high-def video and nice audio. The extras are pretty decent (the deleted scenes are required viewing) yet not painfully thorough.
- Robert Searle
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Sons of Anarchy: Season One
Twentieth Century Fox
August 18, 2009
5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio