That I have never ridden a motorcycle is just one of the many ways in which I am not cool. But I have seen "The Wild One," "Easy Rider" and "The Great Escape," so I understand something about the symbolic weight, cultural import and really big noise of the hog, the chopper, the bike. And I grew up on the Hardy Boys and old Marx Brothers movies, so I know something about running with a gang.
I have also watched cable television, where the success of "The Sopranos" taught TV makers that not only could successful series be made about bad, dangerous people, but that such series could at once earn critical respect and sexy up the brand. In shows like "Deadwood" and "Brotherhood," lawlessness becomes a law unto itself; in "The Shield" and "Dexter" the cops rewrite the rules. "Breaking Bad," "Weeds" and "The Riches" all have criminal, if comical, heroes. Even "Nip/Tuck" -- in which the characters rearrange their clients' faces -- fits that bill.
FX, home of "The Shield," "Nip/Tuck," and the messed-up-firefighters series "Rescue Me," has made some hay from tales of violent or otherwise toxic men and the women who fit their lives around them. Its latest offering, "Sons of Anarchy,” follows the fortunes of a motorcycle gang known as SAMCRO, a military-style abbreviation for the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original. Putting aside questions of quality -- I don't mean to say it isn't good, because it is -- the premise is almost mathematically obvious, given the times, so much so that HBO has its own biker series in the works.
SAMCRO literally gets away with murder in the fictional northern California town of Charming (fictional population: 14,679), located in the vicinity of the real town of Hollister, where in 1947 a motorcycle rally gone out of bounds inspired sensational headlines (and, some years later, "The Wild One"). As created by Kurt Sutter, a writer and executive producer on "The Shield," the Sons of Anarchy are an outlaw band, both "realistic" and, inevitably, romanticized. (That happens when you get writers and actors involved.) To keep them likable enough to sustain a series, he makes them moral on their own terms and surrounds them with characters less palatable or righteous than they are: white-supremacist, meth-dealing rivals; crooked cops. Call it the Sopranos Method.
There are similar contrasts within the group itself: Charismatic hero Jackson "Jax" Teller (Charlie Hunnam) is a relatively sensitive soul, trying to steer his club from a path of violence and crime toward one of diplomacy and legitimate investments. He is also, functionally (and intentionally), Hamlet -- though instead of a ghost directing him to vengeance, Jax has discovered an unpublished manuscript by his late father, decrying SAMCRO's fall from "a Harley commune" practicing "social rebellion" into racketeering and moral "chaos." Indecision doesn't seem to be his defining flaw, but he is waffling between world views.
This incipient "softness" displeases Jax's mother Gemma (Katey Sagal, who is married to Sutter), the Gertrude of the piece, now married to Clay ("Hellboy" Ron Perlman), the Claudius. They like what they've got going.
There are moments that require you not to think too hard, and some of the black humor doesn't overcome its fundamental nastiness. But on the whole, it's a superior package, intelligently constructed and handsomely executed. Hunnam, Perlman and Sagal -- a fine actress with so much more to her than Peg Bundy -- ride at the head of a large and excellent cast that includes "Sopranos" vet Drea de Matteo as Jax's drug-addicted, pregnant ex-wife; Maggie Siff (Rachel on last season's "Mad Men") as his old girlfriend; and Mark Boone Junior as a biker accountant.
Sutter gives them good scenes to play; he knows how to bury information within action and doesn't tell you everything he thinks you need to know about a character within the first hour. That alone gives you a reason to come back.
'Sons of Anarchy'
When: 10 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-MA-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17, with advisories for coarse language and violence.)