Stories about criminals are always popular. Movies like The Godfather, Parts 1 and 2, both of which are considered two of the best American movies ever made, are still popular after forty years.
Television broke ground when HBO ran The Sopranos, another Mafia saga, set in current times. Tony Soprano and his gang were a bunch of ruthless criminals and killers and the audience loved them. There's an anarchic part of us which likes to see the bad guys win. The Godfather, Don Corleone, gave birth to Tony Soprano, who gave birth to a genre of cable television shows. They aren't subject to network standards and practices, so they can push the edge.
Trading on that, cable networks AMC has a top hit, Breaking Bad, and FX has the biker series, Sons of Anarchy.
Breaking Bad is still one of the best series on television, if only for the terrific performances of its two main leads, Bryan Cranston as former high school chemistry teacher, Walt White, and his partner-in-crime, Jesse Pinkston, played by Aaron Paul. At the beginning of Season One we feel sorry for Walt, who is diagnosed with lung cancer. He's terminal, but uses his skills as a chemist to make a superior brand of methamphetamine to insure his family's financial security. He enlists the aid of a former student, the druggie Jesse, to help him sell his product. From there Walt and Jesse's lives have spiraled out of control. Their roles are changing. Walt's cancer is in remission, but he is showing an antisocial side to his personality, more ruthless. Jesse has shown he has a conscience. Both men have killed, but while Walt doesn't seem bothered by murder, Jesse does.
I can't think of worse people than murderous drug dealers, and yet I'm in front of my television every week rooting for them to get away with it.
I don't know any drug dealers in real life, but during the 1970s I worked with quite a few bikers. Sons of Anarchy shows their culture as accurately as I remember. Bikers are cliquish, can work with people outside of their society, but the club is the most important thing. In that way it's no different than street gangs who band together and become wolf packs of violence and criminality.
Ron Perlman (Hellboy, and Vincent from Beauty and the Beast) is Clay Morrow, president and co-founder of the club. The club is referred to as SAMCRO, an acronym for Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Originals.
Clay's wife, Gemma, is played by Katey Sagal, who starred as Peggy Bundy for years in the comedy series, Married With Children. Charlie Hunnam, an actor I was not familiar with before the series, is the lead character, Jax, who is Gemma's son, and Clay's stepson.
SAMCRO is a gun-running group who operate out of a small Northern California town, the fictional Charming (great name, there). They are in league with the chief of police to keep other elements out of the town. It doesn't make them noble, just protective of their turf. Naturally their activities have raised the interest of law enforcement, specifically the ATF (Alchohol, Tobacco and Firearms), a law enforcement arm of the United States government, and an agent, June Stahl, played by Ally Walker.
Since this is television, there are fantasy elements that come into the stories...like law enforcement being so dumb they can't seem to pin the most obvious crimes on the characters. I watched the first two seasons of Sons of Anarchy on Netflix streaming video, and shook my head with disbelief that this gang could get away with so much in plain sight. The capper to me came when one of the bikers threatened Agent Stahl with a gun and he wasn't arrested. The United States government is a lot more powerful than any biker gang in a hick town. We're left with a sense of disbelief at what they get away with.
At least Breaking Bad gives us some semblance of realism. In that series Dean Norris plays Walt White's brother-in-law, Hank, who is an agent of the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), sniffing around Walt's boss, the enigmatic Gustavo Fring. Gus is played to dead-panned perfection by Giancarlo Esposito. Gus owns a restaurant chain, Los Pollos Hermanos, the cover for his major drug operation.
(I last wrote a post about this series in June, 2010.)
Just as Sons of Anarchy goes out of its way to make me doubt its credibility, so occasionally does Breaking Bad. I'm giving the latter series a little slack because the whole fourth season hasn't played out yet, but I'm wondering how it is that two trucks, with the name Los Pollos Hermanos painted on the sides, can be shot up by a rival drug cartel, drivers and drug couriers killed, and not have the interest of the FBI and DEA as to why. Maybe that subject will come up again later.
It's a weakness of shows using criminals as heroes that the plots have to go to great lengths to keep the characters from ending up behind bars. In real life there have been major criminals who have operated with impunity, but it's usually because of corrupt officials. Sooner or later illegal activities come out in the open. Maybe it's just because I'm a natural born paranoid, but if I were one of the characters in these dramas I'd be doing a lot of looking over my shoulder. I'd be wondering when a van full of SWAT team members, DEA, FBI, or ATF, were about to swoop down on me. Because we care about the characters in these TV series we forget that real-life criminals are sociopaths with targets on their backs. At some point the law will break down their doors. Federal prisons are grim places, where crooks do hard time, and lots of it. That's something that isn't shown in any of these programs, but it's something the fans should think about. I like Jesse, Walt, and those bad boy bikers of SAMCRO, but they're all gonna be cooling their heels for about 50 years in a federal facility, courtesy of Uncle Sam.
I was there for the first episode of The Sopranos on HBO, and I was hooked as soon as I heard this theme song. The two series I wrote about above have good theme music, but for sheer brilliance it's hard to top this classic opener: