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Series


HBO changed the TV game with their willingness to tell rough, violent, sexually charged, curse word filled, adult tales, and after the other premium channels caught up it was time for standard cable to catch up. AMC and FX stepped up to that plate the hardest. AMC scores for the two best shows since HBO started falling off the radar a bit ( Breaking Bad and Mad Men), but FX scores for charging the situation first with The Shield, Nip/Tuck, and Rescue Me. Dirt, a personal favourite, Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Riches and Damages came a little later. Following the end of their most popular series, The Shield, FX introduced a new series concerning the adventures of a motorcycle gang dubbed the Sons of Anarchy (not so ironically produced and created by the guy behind The Shield, Kurt Sutter).

Sons of Anarchy: Season One
The show tells a pretty basic crime family story, exchanging Godfather and Menace II Society types for guys with leather and bikes. The writers toss in a few idiosyncratic and occasionally grotesque details in order to keep things ‘original’ (bodies full of semen, a chronic masturbator, burning off a tattoo with a blow-torch, hiding contraband in septic tank trucks, castration), but in the end the familiarity isn’t really a problem. A crime family story is about as novel as a zombie story these days. The familiarity has been pushed so far it’s almost not worth mentioning. Books have been written on the subject, professors teach courses on it. We expect certain things to happen throughout the narrative – loyalties will be tested, the family unit will crumble and be rebuilt, the character’s will test the audience’s tolerance for violent behavior, cops will be bought off, etcetera and so forth. Though biker gangs were a huge part of the Silver Age of American cinema, and ran several generations of exploitation cinema, they really haven’t had much of presence on television, so there is a hint of novelty in the pitch, but the real test is found in the characters, and the manner in which the story deals with the assumed present clichés.

Sons of Anarchy: Season One
Without ruining any of the plot, and I strongly suggest viewers go into this series as blind as they can, I’ll say that Sutter and his crew find surprising ways of dealing with old news, and even gets away with infusing the series with Shakespearian elements (I won’t tell you which one, because it would be a spoiler, but rest assured it isn’t ‘Romeo and Juliet’). It takes about four or five episodes before things start getting addictive, and there’s more than a little overlap with The Sopranos, but this stuff is hard to shake. There are usually three stories going on per episode – an episode centric story that sometimes flows into the super-narrative, a forward moving serialized plot, and an unraveling back story, as told through a dead father’s diaries. This structure isn’t a novel one, but it’s one that isn’t employed by the majority of popular series, which often fall into the never-ending serial category. The last handful of episodes take the serialized route quite a bit further, but by then even a little bit of overwhelming coincidence can’t stop the train.

Sons of Anarchy could probably be aptly re-titled Character Actors Unite!, and in the end it’s the totally awesome cast that makes the show worth watching. There are so many great, underappreciated guys in the ensemble that it’s almost easier to list the class acts that don’t make an appearance. That would be Clancy Brown, Bruce Campbell and Jeffery Combs. The fact that Ron Perlman is a series lead should really be enough to excite most interested parties, and These guys aren’t just a bunch of pretty faces either, they do some grade-A scenery chewing. Katey Sagal holds her own too, often out-chewing, and out-toughing every man on screen, and her character grows to be the most interesting in the entire series, exhibiting massive up and down swings without losing focus of what makes the character who she is. It isn’t quite the worthy follow-up to Deadwood I was kind of hoping for, but it’s good for an off weekend.

Sons of Anarchy: Season One

Video


Gritty, real world drama always seems a little silly in HD when you’re first getting used to the look of a movie or series, but after a couple episodes you’re reminded how much more real the realness becomes. Sons of Anarchy is actually a lot cleaner and even than quite a few other Blu-ray TV shows, but it’s not without a solid bunch of grain. The series cinematography is pretty consistent, including hard blacks and whites, relatively deep focus, saturated yellows, and a reasonably diffused sense of source lighting. As in pretty much every case ever grain depends on lighting, and usually effects moderate hues like skin tones. Details are rich and deep, including all those lovely character actor facial folds and holes. Blacks are pretty much perfectly deep, hard edged, and rarely effected by outside colours. Excepting yellows the colours are usually pretty natural, but there are occasional flares of bright or solid hues, which are usually clean. Problems include some very minor frame rate issues. During some of the more sweeping camera movements there’s a bit of a flutter. In lower light quick action sometimes leads to some ghosting effects, and that uncanny ‘live feed’ shake.

Audio


The gritty hyperrealism of the photography, along with the use of Harley Davidson motorcycles made me assume that this would be a particularly aggressive DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack, but things are pretty dialogue and music centric. There really isn’t a whole lot of ambient sound traveling throughout the stereo and surround channels, though when the choppers cut across the screen it’s pretty obvious which direction they’re moving. We’re definitely not talking an immersive experience here. The center channel features a few incidental effects, but they’re pretty low on the track compared to the dialogue. The dialogue is clean and clear, though not entirely natural in how even it all is, and there are some off moments of echo. There’s also occasional problems with words coming out of closed mouths occasionally, but these appear to be editing choices that are just made more obvious by high definition video. The show’s rock and roll soundtrack comes off with a solid degree of loudness, sometimes overwhelmingly so compared to the rest of the soundtrack. The surround channels don’t play into the music mix a whole lot besides an echo track, but the front channels are powerful, and the LFE is punchy and throbby when required.

Sons of Anarchy: Season One

Features


Fox once again makes getting to the first two discs’ commentary tracks more difficult than necessary by not including them under an extras menu. They’re easier to get to than those of the recent Dollhouse release, but it’s still a pain. Disc one features commentary on the pilot episode with creator Kurt Sutter, and actors Katey Sagal, Ron Perlman and Charlie Hunnam. This track is pretty fun, and run kind of like an interview by Sutter. Disc two features commentary on ‘For the Pull’ with Sutter, director Guy Ferland, and actors Maggie Siff and Charlie Hunnam. This track is pretty down to business, and a little less fun in tone, but generally more interesting. Disc three features commentary on the season’s final episode – ‘The Revelator’. Sutter is joined by almost the entire gang of lead actors (actors, no actresses). It’s a nice attempt at a full-bodied discussion, but there are really too many people that don’t really want to say anything, and in the end Sutter really could’ve done this one by himself. The joking and back patting is sweet enough, and there are some good teasers for season two, but all in all, the track is a bit of a slog.

All other extras are delegated to the third disc. The final commentary is followed by ‘The Making of Sons of Anarchy Season One’ (9:00, HD), another mini-documentary that is stuck somewhere between an EPK and a genuine look at the subject matter. The tone is that of a sales piece, including lots of juicy shots from the series, and some pretty fluffy interviews with the major cast and crew. The focus eventually moves to production, including behind the scenes footage, and looks at the production design and plotting. There are also enough spoilers to assume this wasn’t shown between shows on the FX Network, but it does end a little like a preview for season two.

Sons of Anarchy: Season One
Other featurettes include ‘The Ink’ (4:50, HD), a look at the design of the SAMCRO logo, jackets, and tattoos (Mark Boone Jr. actually designed his own tattoo), ‘The Bikes (9:00, HD), obviously a look at the motorcycles, and the most substantial featurette of them all, ‘Casting Sons of Anarchy’ (14:50, HD), which is obviously a look at the picture perfect group of actors. The set is completed with a whole bunch of deleted and extended scenes (35:00, SD) from throughout the season, a blooper reel, and some Fox television trailers.

Sons of Anarchy: Season One

Overall


It never fails to amaze me that standards and practices, or whoever’s responsible for cable television censorship, still has problems with two naughty words, and bare breasts. To the credit of its realism Sons of Anarchy pushes the envelope over and over again, but still holds back on these three things, which sick minded individuals like myself notice. But f that’s my biggest complaint I suppose the show has to be pretty good, right? Sons of Anarchy is addictive, brutal, funny, and most importantly, a damn good story. Highly recommended. The Blu-ray release looks great, sounds acceptable, and features a few decent extra features to boot.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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