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ART AND LIFE CONVERGE FOR A REBEL'S ROLE

It's not easy to break out of typecasting (Kelsey Grammer, we're talking about you), but Katey Sagal busts out in a big, brutal way in Sons of Anarchy.

It may be the most brutal, gut-churning scene ever to be realized on FX's Sons of Anarchy, a gritty drama about a California outlaw motorcycle gang that has already featured a man's back tattoo burned off with a blowtorch and a young mother shot to death by her husband's best friends.

And as you watch motorcycle club matriarch Gemma Teller Morrow endure a crushing, explicit humiliation that seems to last forever, you notice: The actor is the creator's wife.

So, Katey Sagal, how does a husband ask his wife to endure one of the most degrading scenes she has ever filmed in 40 years of acting?

"He just paints pictures with the characters, and I just happen to be his wife," Sagal said of spouse Kurt Sutter, a former writer for FX's explicit cop drama The Shield who created Sons of Anarchy and crafted the Gemma character specifically for his spouse.

"What happens to Gemma sets up a big emotional arc for the whole club that kind of threads its way through the whole season," she added. "It's always about doing something I haven't done yet . . . and I definitely hadn't done that yet."

Turns out, there isn't much Sagal hasn't done in a sprawling career that ranges from singing backup for Bette Midler and Bob Dylan to playing the most comically dysfunctional mom on television, Married . . . With Children's sex-starved Peg Bundy.

But it is Gemma Morrow who might be the creative culmination of Sagal's long showbiz journey. Like Lady Macbeth in motorcycle chaps, Gemma teams with her second husband, Ron Perlman's ruthless biker Clay Morrow, to run the Sons with a velvet-gloved fist.

So when the club's enemies want to provoke the Sons in the show's second season, they target Gemma in a brutal fashion no self-respecting TV critic would divulge before the audience can see it themselves.

The attack - and Gemma's surprising reaction to it - only adds more Shakespearean tones to a series that already feels like Hamlet on a Harley, including Gemma's son, Jackson "Jax" Teller, struggling with the secret knowledge that Clay had his best friend's wife killed.

"This season is all about alliances . . . (asking) 'Whose side are you on?' " said Sagal. "We're just getting to the end of shooting it ourselves, and even we (actors) don't know where it's going."

In many ways, Gemma Morrow may be TV's ultimate female antihero - ruthless enough to beat a woman senseless with a skateboard, but fiercely protective of her husband, her son and the club she has served since the age of 18.

The character is also a stunning showcase for Sagal, 55, and confirms a serious trend. Let the latest 20-something starlet dodge raygun blasts in the next Transformers movie; Oscar-caliber heavyweights such as Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, Laura Linney, Toni Collette and Kyra Sedgwick are pushing boundaries on cable TV, tackling parts few movie studios would offer.

"They're taking my jobs!" joked Sagal, who scored her first real TV acting gig in 1985, playing Mary Tyler Moore's chain-smoking co-worker on the CBS sitcom Mary, landing Peg Bundy two years later. "It's taken a minute to get people to take a chance on me doing something different. And I think the business people (in the TV industry) are more freaked out by it than the public."

As the second season opens, the club finds a new adversary in the League of American Nationalists, a group of white supremacists who want the club driven out of their Charming, Calif., home base. In a casting masterstroke, Sutter nabbed Adam Arkin to play the group's mastermind, backed by a muscular, tattooed lieutenant portrayed by provocative punk poet Henry Rollins.

As LOAN's dark plans begin to close around the club, Sutter makes viewers feel sorry for a gang of murderers and gun runners, mostly by making their adversaries even more brutal and amoral than they are.

"This show has ultimately become a good PR vehicle for outlaw clubs . . . (generating) acceptance from the general public all the way to law enforcement," said Sutter, speaking to TV critics earlier this year. "I don't know if that was a good thing or a bad thing."

For Sagal, it's a great thing; it's the role of her career at an age when many female actors are settling into suburban mom and cranky teacher parts.

"I think she's unique in that she's tough and loving at the same time," she said of Gemma. "There's something all-forgiving about her, even as she does despicable things."

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

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REVIEW

Sons of Anarchy

Second season debuts at 10 p.m. Tuesday on FX. Grade: A. Rating: TV-MA (mature audiences).

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