CAUTION: Those who are likely to be offended or disgusted by descriptions of a very violent TV show should not go any further than this picture.
I’ve just watched a man drown another man in a bathtub full of urine, and I don’t feel tip-top to be honest. Not because it was disgusting, which it really, really was (the drowner then urinated on the drownee, which I felt was probably unnecessary) but because it was a warm, stinking demonstration of how one of finest television shows of the last few years has descended into ugliness.
The best TV shows for me are the ones you want to be in. I wanted to be furiously pacing the halls of the White House with Sam Seaborne. I wanted to live with Joey Tribbiani. I wouldn’t mind working in a hospital with House. But most of all, I wanted to be astride a growling, custom-made Harley, cruising in formation with my brothers to smite the next gang of white supremacists who dared muscle in on my town. (There is a caveat to all this of course: I only wanted to have a go if I’m completely invincible. I don’t really fancy being shot or stabbed, or even really taking a light punch in face).
SOA has always been pretty violent – not as grotesquely, sadistically violent as it is now, though violent nonetheless – but the violence carried a purpose. It was an element that, alongside having to juggle loyalty to one family with loyalty to another (something explored so brilliantly by the Sopranos) the Sons had to deal with as part of their lifestyle. Now, though, as happened to 24, the violence has become the centrepiece as plot, nuance and subtlety are replaced by piss, blood and prison rape.
It’s depressing to watch, both because of the subject matter and the longing of a return to the earlier series. What made SOA so compelling, especially in the first two series, was its sense of humour. That’s something that made the Sopranos such a brilliant show, its aggression and drama tempered by momentary lightenings of the mood, like when Paulie got poison ivy all over his face gunning down Mikey Palmice or when Paulie and Christopher get stranded in the woods. A couple of great SOA moments were when Tigg accidentally dropped a girl off the top of the bar, or Clay’s dismayed reaction to the group voting in favour of entering the porn industry.
Now, though, any humour that the show had, or even tries to hold onto, has been stamped out by increasingly twisted episodes of violence. A low point was when Tigg – an initially complex character who seems to have been stripped of his dimensions – was forced to witness his teenage daughter burn to death in a pit of bodies. That particular season, a real hit and miss (Jimmy Smits’ Nero was excellent, Harrold Pirreanou’s Damon Pope shallow and unconvincing) was one I really struggled to get through, especially without Opie, who the show now misses terribly, even he was hardly a fountain of comedy.
Season 3’s movement towards a darker, more dramatic storyline in Northern Ireland left a little less room for the lighter moments, but was helped by a cracking villain in Jimmy Phelan, played with psychopathic menace by Titus Welliver. But that season’s change of pace served a creative purpose by moving the action out of Charming, making the lack of laughs a little less problematic. Now though, we’re back in the grim, grimy greys of ports and porn sets, with little concern for much else other than a lot of glaring from Gemma, frowning from Tara, and blood spatter.
I hope it picks up a little, and I’ll keep going for now, because no man can leave a series unfinished (other than Season 5 of Californication. Shudder). But I hope by the time Season 7 reaches Netflix on these shores, SOA can bring back the joy back to biker gangs. Maybe that would convince me to join.