BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. Kurt Sutter took the idea of criminal motorcycle gangs, tossed in a little Shakespeare, cast his wife as the tough "rock 'n' roll chick" and ended up with "Sons of Anarchy."
The new series, which premieres tonight at 11 on FX, is an uneven mix of its various elements. There are flashes of the kind of off-the-beaten-path, high-quality drama that the cable channel has made its trademark ("The Shield," "Rescue Me"). But, at least in the first couple of episodes, it's still trying to come together.
"I can't mention any organizations, but one of these organizations sort of opened their doors to me. And I got to see it firsthand," Sutter said. "And it's a fascinating culture. ... I had no doubt that they were dangerous cats, but there was this amazing camaraderie. There was this amazing sort of familial, I'd-kill-for-my-brother bond that all of them had that was just somewhat endearing."
Of course, as he portrays it, the Sons of Anarchy motorcycle club is also an organized crime syndicate. They're arms dealers who don't hesitate to kill anybody who gets in their way.
"Anarchy" is also sort of a family drama in the same way that "The Sopranos" was a family drama. Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) is sort of the crown prince of the Sons of Anarchy. His late father founded the organization; his stepfather (Ron Perlman, "Hellboy") replaced him as its leader. And Jax's mother, Gemma (Katey Sagal of "Married ... With Children"), is the toughest character on the show.
"She's a ferocious mother," said Sagal, who married Sutter in 2003. "She will do anything for her son and for her family her family being this motorcycle world that she's so a part of. ... Yeah, she's a little bit of a rock chick."
Sutter knew he wanted Sagal for the role.
"I've seen flashes of Gemma throughout the course of my marriage," he said with a laugh.
The rest of the show came from Sutter's own research into the origins of various criminal motorcycle gangs. In tonight's premiere, Jax discovers that his father's original idea for the Sons of Anarchy was for a hippie-ish group of nonconformists, not a bunch of criminals.
"Most of these clubs really began as something else. They began as fraternities, of brotherhoods of guys, just most of them war veterans getting together to blow off steam," Sutter said. "And in a very short period of time, a lot of these clubs morphed into essentially organized crime syndicates. And I thought that was such an epic arc that happened. .... And then I imposed the sort of Hamlet archetype on top of that."
Because Jax's father was the "king" of the Sons of Anarchy; his stepfather is the new "king." And his mother wants to protect the criminal organization that she and her current husband have built.
In the premiere, Jax is having a tough time. His drug-addict ex-wife (Drea DeMateo of "Sopranos" and "Joey") gives birth to his son, and the premature infant faces a struggle to survive.
And Jax discovers a manuscript his father wrote about the real origins of the motorcycle gang.
"In my mind, Jax Teller ... is essentially not to keep nailing the pretentious Shakespearean analogy, but I will the Hamlet character," Sutter said. "And in my mind, the manuscript that he discovers in the pilot is essentially the ghost of his father.
"And the discovery that 'Perhaps everything I've known, everything that means something to me is perhaps wrong.' And the drama spins out of that."
That drama includes plenty of violence and blood, sexual situations and the kind of language that you don't hear on broadcast networks. It's not the same content you'll find on HBO or Showtime no f-bombs are dropped but it's the same sort of adult content that we've come to expect on FX shows like "The Shield."
"Sons of Anarchy" isn't "The Shield" or "Rescue Me." But it starts to grow on you after a couple of episodes. And there are enough interesting ideas and good performances to make it worth keeping an eye on.
Ron Perlman isn't a motorcycle rider, he just plays one on TV.
"I'm still in the process of learning how to ride. It's not going very well," he said. "But I have major medical, so it should be fine."
He joked about his difficulties but added that, "Luckily, all my little mishaps have been little mishaps, and I'm trying to keep it that way. But it's a thousand-pound bike with no small amount of torque. And I'm an old dog. It's hard to learn new tricks."
Not that you'll see it on the screen. For one thing, there aren't a lot of scenes of motorcycle rides. For another, it's all in the editing.
"It's the magic of movies. We'll figure out a way to sell it, I guess," Perlman said. "It's terrifying. I'mnot going to lie to you."