American films and series usually ask – and answer – the question: who redeems? Who faces the gunmen at High Noon? Where’s John Wayne – or, more recently, Clint Eastwood – to take a bullet if he must? The stakes are high, the question clear.
The crime megaseries that have redefined television in the past three to four years – The Shield, The Sopranos, The Wire, running across 60-90 episodes – are not clear. They are morally ambiguous (and, because of their length and sprawl, often downright confusing). No self-respecting writer above the level of hack would see morality as other than ambiguous now, and though one could see redemptive elements in all of these shows – especially, and curiously given its frequent bleakness and brutality, The Wire – still you were never sure that redemption was any more than, at best, temporary.
Sons of Anarchy (Bravo Wednesdays) deserves attention in these stakes, because it has let go of any conventional moral-cum-institutional framework altogether. It has been promoted heavily by Bravo, which is part of Virgin Media, a channel that aims itself at men in their late 20s to early 40s. Sons of Anarchy, White Collar (Wednesdays) and, even more, Spartacus, Blood and Sand (Sundays, Tuesdays, Fridays) are part of the relaunch of a channel that wants to increase the 0.1-0.3 per cent of the TV audience it presently captures, and whose new slogan is “Home of the Brave”. Scott Russell, Virgin Media’s head of creative, said at the relaunch last month that “Home Of The Brave is … a philosophy that will keep evolving in the future and will look to engage the viewer and have them interact with the channel”: a sentence that uses 28 words to say, as Bravo’s audience might put it, “sweet f*** all” – for, to judge from the dialogue they’re offered, f*** as expletive and verb is heavily favoured. That’s the case even in Spartacus, which eschews the sub-classical stuff (“Hail, Flatulus, goes Caesar to the Senate today?”) in favour of lines such as that from an exasperated barbarian in the first episode: “Where the f*** are the Romans?”.
The most interesting, by a long way, is Sons of Anarchy, set in the Californian town of Charming, run by the eponymous motorbike gang that sells guns to various mass murderers in its travel-to-shop area and, in this series (the second), adds a porno film studio to its portfolio. The chief of police is in its pocket; his deputy, who aspires to the rule of law, realises by episode six (last week) that, indeed, ambiguity is all, and if he wants to avoid greater evil he better ride pillion with the Sons, for there are worse. Worse, for example, are the Mayans, the 99-ers and the True IRA, gangs to whom they sell guns and who sometimes turn on them: and worst of all are the LOANs, or the League of American Nationalists, led by one Ethan Zobelle, a fundamentalist Christian, cigar-store owner, white separatist, murderer, rapist and doting father. Explaining his political lifestyle choice, he says he is forced into white radicalism “at a time when the black radicals are in power” (you guess he means President Obama) and when “everything I love about this country – faith, values, morals, decency – is gone”.
By last week, the gathering tension between the Sons and the LOANs was ushering forth into open warfare, with one’s emotional strings pulled firmly towards the Sons, who – although given to murdering, torturing, selling guns to terrorists and drug-dealers and corrupting the law – have a rich communal life. Their boss, Clay, is sweetly loving of his wife and new baby; the young pretender, Brad Pitt-handsome Jax (Charlie Hunnam), is concerned for the welfare of his club brothers; the Sons keep Charming free of all drugs and most crime. No character is other than stepped so far into blood – though Jax, who specialises in troubled poses, might be the redeemer yet.
Sons’ radical amoralism seems to speak from an acceptance by its makers that a large part of global society is controlled by gangs; that these gangs often dispense welfare and/or order to the areas they control; and that they are in cahoots with the authorities, who fear them or profit from them or both. John Wayne would be lost: everybody is a punk, and they all feel lucky.
White Collar concerns an FBI agent who is assisted by a charming and roguish white-collar criminal whose exceptional deductive powers have led to his being released on parole to assist the Bureau. This has moments of charm, but not many: mainly, it’s a silly borrowing from the 1982 Eddie Murphy-Nick Nolte comedy thriller 48 Hours, where the lawman and the felon find respect and affection through the joint chase. But the depths are plumbed by Spartacus – a catastrophic borrowing from the 2000 Ridley Scott film Gladiator, in which plumes of blood gush from every sword-swipe and the Romans are led by a coldly ambitious, ruthlessly manipulative, deeply treacherous legate named Gaius Claudius Glaber with a beautiful but serpentine wife, whose main job is to shed all her furs in his tent and who inspires him to deeper treachery and further heights of ruthless ambition. By contrast, the hero, a Thracian – who will take the name Spartacus later in the series – has a beautiful wife too, but she keeps her one piece of clothing mainly on, at least so far. You see, watching it, why this is the Home of the Brave: sticking with Spartacus will need a f*** of a lot of guts.
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