Sons of Anarchy was one of the biggest hits in the history of FX. The outlaw biker club drama’s second season was a classic. Katey Sagal was annually one of the Emmys’ most egregious snubs, and the show had a deep ensemble of actors like Charlie Hunnam, Maggie Siff, Ryan Hurst and Jimmy Smits to elevate what creator Kurt Sutter once described as “bloody pulp fiction with highly complex characters.”
Sons was also given to excess in almost every way: more plot twists, more graphic torture, more minutes per episode. (It, probably more than any other recent series, is responsible for the trend of drama episodes routinely creeping past the one-hour mark.) Just more more more, until it became too exhausting to watch. By the time Jax Teller made his final ride, even many die-hard SAMCRO fans had had enough.
After a misfire with the medieval fantasy The Bastard Executioner, Sutter has returned to familiar territory with Mayans M.C., a spin-off (co-created by Elgin James) set in the Sons universe, but focusing on a different club’s charter, located on the California/Mexico border.
The show (debuts September 4) is a chance to revisit the kind of material that Sutter does best, but with a clean slate of characters and plot, rather than the people and scenarios he wrung dry on Sons. But the two episodes provided for review are a disappointment, featuring many of the original series’ weaknesses without its greatest strengths.
Our antihero this time out is Ezekiel “EZ” Reyes (JD Pardo), a Mayans prospect who was once a promising college student (and still has a photographic memory, which becomes a handy plot device) before going to prison for killing a cop. Paroled after his victim was exposed as crooked, he teams up with big brother Angel (Clayton Cardenas) in the Mayans, much to the concern of their butcher father Felipe (Edward James Olmos). We get occasional glimpses of Emilio Rivera as Marcus Alvarez, who runs the Mayans’ Oakland charter and was a Sons staple, but this group down by the border is led by Michael Irby’s Bishop, struggling to keep the group independent of cartel kingpin Miguel Galindo (Danny Pino), who pays the Mayans to smuggle his drugs.
It’s a new setting (the Mayans even have a tunnel that allows them clandestine passage back and forth under the border) and mostly new characters, but it all feels pretty familiar. The pilot (which, true to form, runs 67 minutes without commercials) features three major plot twists, at least two of which will be obvious way ahead of time to anyone who watched the parent show (or, really, any cable or streaming drama of the last 20 years). Each of them places characters in situations that should be narratively unsustainable, but based on how Sons was plotted, everyone will be allowed to dangle on the end of their various metaphorical nooses for years. The early episodes also feature the obligatory helpings of graphic torture, child abductions, endless motorcycle chases and shootouts. (Sons rarely did action well, particularly for how often and how lengthy those sequences were; Mayans isn’t an improvement.)
But all of that comes with your admission to a Sutter motorcycle club show, even if most of it’s no more imaginative than the last time. (Credit where it’s due: He has yet to run out of new ways to torture and mutilate people.) There are occasional playful flourishes, like the way the show signals the start of each flashback to EZ’s days as a clean-cut student dating Emily (Sarah Bolger), but otherwise it’s the same stuff, different names. (The Galindo cartel was a key part of Sons, too, but here it assumes the plot function of the manipulative Irish gun runners who funded SAMCRO.) That it’s a Latino group that gets mixed up with hot-button issues on both sides of the border offers some new shading, but that material largely takes a backseat to the same old plot moves. It’s a spin-off likely to be better received by people who didn’t watch the original.
The more frustrating aspect of Mayans comes on the character front, which was always the saving grace of Sons. Despite some strong actors like Olmos, Irby, Pino and American Crime alum Ricardo Cabral (as Coco, one of Angel’s closest friends in the club), none of the supporting characters come across as more than vaguely defined archetypes. It’s a big cast, and it’s no sin if not everyone pops at first (it took a while for Ryan Hurst to show the depth he could bring to Opie), but that nobody stands out early on is worrisome — particularly where JD Pardo is concerned. Sons went through the same creative bumps most dramas do in their first seasons, but Hunnam and especially Sagal were so compelling right from the start that it was worth waiting for the show to find itself. In part due to the nature of the character Sutter and James have created for him, in part due to Pardo’s own so-so charisma (previously on display in NBC’s Revolution), he doesn’t provide nearly enough gravity at the center of all this madness. And there’s certainly no one as instantly dazzling as Sagal was back in the day.
I had hoped that starting over from scratch would allow Sutter to regain the creative form of Sons‘ first couple of years, rather than the contorted wallow it became. But Mayans M.C. is basically Sons Season Eight with the names changed. If that notion excites you, enjoy.