For These Rough Riders, There's a Ratings Reward
Principals of Sons of Anarchy dissect the series' success.
It's been a rough season six on Sons of Anarchy, the FX drama about an outlaw motorcycle club in the fictional town of Charming, California. In the season premiere, a young boy carried out a school shooting, using a gun indirectly obtained from the club, which illegally imports weapons and resells them to gangs. Other events have included a prison rape, a miscarriage, a murder by drowning in a tub of urine, assorted other murders and dismemberments and a clubhouse explosion.
Rough only on screen, that is. Sons of Anarchy has experienced impressive growth since its 2008 debut. The new-season opener on September 10 drew 5.9 million viewers, outpacing all competitors in its time period — on broadcast and cable — among adults eighteen to forty-nine. When Live+7 ratings were factored in, that number rose to 8.7 million, easily surpassing 8 million total viewers, a first for an FX telecast.
On October 25, members of the show's cast and creative team gathered at the Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre in the NoHo Arts District, when the Television Academy presented "An Evening with Sons of Anarchy." Panelists included creator–executive producer Kurt Sutter, director–executive producer Paris Barclay and stars Katey Sagal, Dayton Callie, Maggie Siff and Jimmy Smits. TVLine.com West Coast editor Meg Masters moderated.
The school shooting, shocking though it was, was not intended "to be gratuitous or bring eyes to the TV," Sutter said. "I knew it was a risk, not in terms of storytelling, but in the risk of public opinion. We have guys putting guns in the hands of gangbangers. It would be almost irresponsible of us not to tell the story. Our anti-heroes do things that affect the world.
"We have [club leader] Jax [Teller, played by Charlie Hunnam], with two sons close to the age of the kids in the school. How does that resonate with him? Everybody uses that event to his own end, including Jax, who uses it to help the club get out of guns."
Director Barclay handled the scene tastefully, Sutter added: "You don't see it. [Viewers hear gunshots and screams, but see only the school exterior.] It's about the emotional response."
For his part, Barclay said, "There was only one other time in my career that I was scared to do something — this was the second. The first was directing the episode [of NYPD Blue] where Jimmy Smits [as Bobby Simone] dies." His initial reaction when hearing about the school-shooting scene? "This is going to be a disaster." He changed his mind after hearing Sutter's reasoning.
With so much murder and mayhem over the course of the show, the characters' emotional responses run high. Indeed, said Siff, who as Tara Knowles has had a long on-off relationship with husband Jax, "I was thinking today about how emotional these characters are. I think they're all suffering from PTSD. These big emotions come out — big rages, big passions. That's what I think is so satisfying to the audience and to the actors, too. It's fun."
For Smits, who joined the cast in the fifth season as gangleader and pimp Nero Padilla, storytelling is the show's hallmark. Catching up by watching all previous seasons was, he said, "Engaging. There are intricacies, hierarchies to be understood as an audience member. It's another world that just grabs you. The storytelling is very compelling. There have been comparisons to Shakespeare in regard to the characters."
Sutter writes the show only to a certain point, as he's then sparked by what the actors bring to their characters and how relationships click. With Smits and Sagal, whose club-matriarch Gemma Teller Morrow is now in a romance with Nero, "the chemistry between the two actors, the flash of rage I saw in Jimmy, provided the story for this season, and maybe for two seasons. It's fun to see them hook up."
An interesting viewpoint, considering that Sagal and Sutter are married. Fun, he amended, "but not in a cuckolded way!"
Sutter said that Callie as Wayne Unser, Charming's police chief and an ally to the motorcycle club, is the glue that holds the show together. "I'm just trying to stay alive!" Callie noted.
As for Gemma, who is still married to a jailed Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman), Sagal reflected, "I think she's compartmentalizing her feelings. She was conflicted about what she did at the end of season five, when she set him up [for a murder]. I think she deeply loved Clay, but that's done now."
And unlike Tara, who left Charming for years before returning, "This is truly the family [Gemma] knows. They're anarchists. They don't have bank accounts — they have money under the mattress. I don't think she'd know how to function [in a normal world]. She knows she's totally embedded in that."
Sutter said he has planned the trajectory of the show toward a seventh and final season, if he's granted one. "I cram a lot of stories into an episode," he noted. "I don't know if I could extend the pace and rhythm past seven seasons. My plan is to do seven seasons."
The evening was a presentation of the Academy's activities committee, chaired by Tony Carey.