FX hit 'Sons of Anarchy' beginning third season

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The room is dark and crowded, heavy with the scent of cigarettes and sweat. As an ancient fan strains against the thick air, an array of tough-looking guys in biker gear belly up to a rickety table.

Tattooed, bearded and unwashed looking, they share the bonds of bad attitude and rebellion, cradling burgundy beverages before getting down to the discussion at hand: Gene Hackman and Al Pacino's finest movie.

Scarecrow might be Hackman's best work, and he always does great work," insists Ron Perlman, 6-foot-plus with a spider tattoo, to nods of agreement. "It's a clinic on acting," offers another voice.

Like watching Hell's Angels discuss a fine chardonnay, it's an incongruous scene as this group dissects the 1973 road movie pairing method actor Pacino with in-the-moment master Hackman, two soon-to-be legends setting the bar high.

Then the camera swings into place, another voice yells "Action!" and Perlman, who some might recognize as the title character from Guillermo del Toro's freaky Hellboy movies, starts grumbling about getting in on a big illegal gun purchase.

That's life on the set of FX's Sons of Anarchy, a kinetic drama about an outlaw biker club where art and a particularly grungy subculture meet in a surprisingly popular — and profitable — marriage.

The show returns for its third season Tuesday, as the club reels from a series of setbacks: the murder of a prospective member, the kidnapping of a leader's infant son and the police's pursuit of club matriarch Gemma Morrow for two murders, including a woman who helped maneuver her into a brutal gang rape last season.

It's a potent mix of story lines arching from Canada to Ireland, detailing conflicts reaching back generations. It's also a tale that makes heroes of characters we usually see as buffoons or villains, exhibit A in how far modern television will go to make us root for compelling antiheroes we've never seen before.

No one may be more surprised than star Perlman, who couldn't even ride a motorcycle when he started performing in the show as outlaw gang leader Clarence "Clay" Morrow two seasons ago.

"Even though I'm not putting on any makeup or transforming myself in any outwardly physical way, it's probably the biggest jump I've ever had to make," said Perlman, best known before Sons for donning loads of latex to play charismatic monsters such as the beast in CBS's Beauty and the Beast series and Hellboy.

"My movements have never taken me inside that world, (and) now we're forced to explore it," he added. "They have a very strong moral compass even though they live outside of conventional law. They seem to be fighting for something that they truly believe is right, not only for themselves, but for the ones that they love. That's a compelling thing to watch."

Standing in the unassuming tangle of offices and sets that form the show's North Hollywood headquarters, it's obvious the actors and production crew share a bit of their characters' outsider spirit.

Criminally unrecognized by the Emmy awards — co-star Katey Sagal offered a career-high performance last season as Morrow's wife, Gemma, struggling to cope with the rape's aftermath — the Sons crew band together like the bikers they portray. But Sagal shrugs off the slight by noting that fans don't seem to share Emmy's disinterest.

"My favorite was this guy who came up with a picture of a Sons of Anarchy T-shirt his mom had made . . . standing with his platoon in Afghanistan, all of them wearing the T-shirt," said Sagal, wife of series creator Kurt Sutter. "That's the true reward for us as actors."

Passionate for 'Sons'

You still hear traces of his native Newcastle, England, in the words. But 30-year-old Sons star Charlie Hunnam, an actor so passionate he rarely drops out of character during close-ups, has a simple question while rehearsing a scene with Sagal, Perlman and the rest of the gang.

"What's really going on here?"

Forget the snide jokes about an actor seeking motivation. In this rehearsal on the Sons' cramped production stage, Hunnam's query kicks off an earnest discussion that leads Sagal to figure out she's wearing the wrong costume, saving them all from wasted time on unusable footage.

Re-creating the world of small-town bikers is serious business for the Sons crew, who value the way real-life MCs (motorcycle clubs) have embraced their scrappy enterprise. Small wonder; to help viewers love the Sons, Sutter has given them even worse enemies (a neo-Nazi rapist played by punk poet Henry Rollins) and a sense of club/family loyalty that forms the only rules these outlaws won't break.

"It's so rarely explored that when (the biker world) is explored, it can be very one-dimensional," said Perlman. "We were most trepidatious about how it would be received. Would they think we were being exploitive or gratuitous? And we've gotten overwhelming support. Everywhere I go, they find I'm in town, I'm invited to the club."

But outside its passionate fan base, Sons of Anarchy may be the quietest hit on television.

Record hit for FX

AMC's Mad Men may get more magazine covers, but Sons is the biggest hit FX has ever had, drawing nearly 9 million people each week over its multiple airings last season. The show's audience grew 72 percent last year from its first season, drawing an average 4.4 million viewers in its second season — twice the eyeballs for a typical Mad Men episode.

Now Sons starts its third season with an ambitious story line, revealing the history of the motorcycle club as Hunnam's Jackson "Jax" Teller chases an Irish, gun-running terrorist who stole his infant son (to be fair, the guy thought Teller's mom, Sagal's Gemma Morrow, killed his son).

Initially demoralized by his son's kidnapping, Jax toughens up to chase his son across the globe — as Gemma lams it from the cops — providing a crash course on the club's history scattered across three continents.

Sutter already has fretted about meeting last year's explosive success, even though Sons has everything from an upcoming iPhone app to a spot on a NASCAR racer to promote its return. And with a higher profile has come controversy, including a $5 million lawsuit from biker-actor Chuck Zito alleging Sons was ripped off from his ideas, and a passionately profane rebuttal on Sutter's personal blog in which he called Zito a "half-talent" looking for a payday.

"To me, the growth of Sons of Anarchy between season one and season two was an extraordinary anomaly," Sutter wrote on his blog. "It was a result of the show's season one premiere getting sideswiped by the RNC Palin speech and the steady increase of fans we added as season one continued. Unfortunately this season, anything less than another huge increase will most likely be labeled a failure."

Sagal, whose real-life "fierce mom" attitude led Sutter to create the Gemma character, is just trying to enjoy work with venerated actor Hal Holbrook (who plays Gemma's estranged, dementia-inflicted dad) while negotiating a Shakespearean drama set on two wheels.

"This season, we open the world into this bigger area," she added, in words that could describe the show's own real-life growing pains. "You'll see how they are awed by the largeness of a violent world. Maybe, in comparison, where they have lived is not quite that."

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See the Feed blog at tampabay.com/blogs/media.

Season premiere

Sons of Anarchy returns for its third season at 10 p.m. Tuesday on FX. Grade: A. Rating: TV-MA- (Mature Audiences).

FX hit 'Sons of Anarchy' beginning third season 09/03/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 3, 2010 8:19pm]

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