Frankly, we’d have watched Sons of Anarchy on name alone, but when we discovered its pedigree it became a must-see. The biker drama, which debuts on Fox Series next week, was created by Kurt Sutter, who previously worked on award-winning corrupt-cop show The Shield. Sons of Anarchy shares not only The Shield’s brutal violence and dark humour, but also its masterful characterisation, taut drama and air of classical tragedy. We met Sutter and star Ron Perlman – who plays a biker club president facing opposition from his own stepson – to decipher the show’s appeal.
Kurt Sutter, creator
You’ve said that the show started out as a West Coast version of The Sopranos…
I kind of regret ever saying that. I love The Sopranos, but it inspired me as much as it paved the road for the show. It allowed me to pitch the idea of essentially archetypal bad guys being protagonists. Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to get in anyone’s office with that idea.
The show has some weird parallels with Hamlet. How did they come about?
I started doing research on the motorcycle outlaw culture itself, and discovered that these clubs started with post-WWII war heroes that came back and didn’t quite know how to fit into society. They put on a jacket and hopped on a motorcycle to blow off steam. And within a short period of time, several of these clubs morphed into organised crime syndicates. My thought was: How did that first guy who put on the jacket and said, ‘Hey, let’s go kick some ass and blow off steam,’ feel about what they essentially became? That guy became John Teller, who is a [metaphorical] ghost in the story, and then the Hamlet paradigm came to me. And yeah, within the bigger arcs of the series there are callbacks to that, but it’s not like I’m going through the dramatic literature and saying, ‘Okay, now season two will be Macbeth.’
The series raises questions about not feeling like you’re part of society, so you make your own. Is that something you’re exploring?
Yeah, I think at our core we all need to feel some sense of community, some sense of family. And some of us are more damaged and more displaced than others. All these guys originally came to the club because they craved that security. The fascinating thing is that these guys are all about rebelling against society and living by their own rules, yet within their own world the code is almost militaristic.
Ron Perlman plays biker president Clay Morrow
Why do you think the show has such wide appeal?
I think people are interested in watching the outlaws, those subcultures that invent their own value systems, that live outside the grid, that have a potential for explosive moments of violence and unpredictability to protect their self-interests. I think history has shown us, with our fascination for The Godfather and things of that nature, that the outlaw is compelling to watch.
You have bikers on set; what do they tell you about the life?
Well, there are a lot of customs. There’s the chapel, for instance, which is a closed-door meeting place where the business of the day is discussed. Sometimes the business of the day is conventional and benign. Sometimes the business of the day is the springboard to great mayhem and outrageous violence. These guys let us know when we’re inside the lines and when we step outside, so they’re great to have around. I think the intention from the beginning was to get the respect of real bikers not by exploiting their world, but by really doing a homage, showing what these guys believe in and what they will and won’t do to uphold their beliefs. We wanted them to admire us, and we’re getting amazingly positive feedback from motorcycle clubs all over the US.