'Sons of Anarchy': Making a case for TV violence

Associated Press Published: November 19, 2012
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NEW YORK (AP) — I want to pay tribute to TV violence.

In particular, I want to celebrate "Sons of Anarchy," FX network's bloodthirsty and brilliant drama series about a motorcycle gang. (It airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. EST.)

Now I don't make a habit of championing violence, even make-believe violence on my TV screen. On the contrary, I count myself among those viewers who stew about the excess of violence on TV. Almost every scripted drama, it seems, habitually embraces violence in its storytelling.

And more to the point, gun violence. With TV drama, guns are standard issue, a staple of the storytelling lexicon. (How many, or rather how few, TV dramas you can name where guns aren't part of the act?)

Debates about TV violence have raged since TV began and usually go nowhere, bogging down in a jumble of the First and Second Amendments. That is, viewers feel constitutionally guaranteed the right to bear arms — and to be entertained by watching others who bear them. Then, with every new outbreak of real-world gun violence, the debate is reignited and the media scapegoated. Nothing is resolved.

This is not to say that certain violence-prone shows don't manage to fly under the radar. Some do it by shrouding themselves in righteousness. Consider "Law & Order: SVU," a have-it-both-ways series that for 14 seasons has luxuriated in violence as something to be condemned while, at the same time, titillating viewers with the sex crimes it wallows in.

Similarly, the "CSI" franchise savors violence retroactively, back in the lab, with graphic deconstructions of each weekly episode of violence.

But it's not all gratuitous violence on TV. A relative handful of dramas earn immunity, as well as acclaim, by putting violence in the service of higher truths. Think of great shows like "The Sopranos," ''Boardwalk Empire," ''Breaking Bad" or "The Shield."

And add "Sons" to the list of hard-hitting series that justify their violent eruptions with the larger stories they tell.

Simply put, "Sons" is a family/workplace drama. It tells of a motorcycle club — the Sons of Anarchy, or SAMCRO — set in the ironically named California town of Charming, where its members do business in drugs, porn and gunrunning while they grapple with rival gangs, shifting alliances and, of course, the law.

In the home stretch of its fifth season, "Sons" by now has spun a sprawling mythology that even included a past story arc set in Northern Ireland. But the saga centers on this family trio: Jax (Charlie Hunnam), his mother, Gemma (Katey Sagal), and her husband, Clay (Ron Perlman), once the club's president.

More recently, Jax has seized the throne from Clay, his stepfather. This has set in motion a Shakespearean-like battle for power that seems sure to end with one of them slaying the other.

Meanwhile, Jax is strategizing how to move the club into more legitimate pursuits. But as he readily admitted on last week's episode, any path of reform "is gonna be bloody, bro."

"Sons" has always been bloody, and then some.

A few seasons ago, a band of white separatists sent SAMCRO a "message" by abducting Gemma, the club's matriarch, and, in a grisly sequence, gang-raping her.