I spend more time than what is clinically healthy thinking about the abstract (or less than definitive) idea behind “greatness” on television. It’s an overly critical approach often making the idea of television simply as visceral entertainment an impossible venture (and it probably drives my wife crazy too). And then there are shows I want so badly to be great, that just aren’t. Sons of Anarchy is a perfect example.
Kurt Sutter and company’s Shakespearean window into the outlaw biker world delivered a first and (mostly) second season that teetered on the edge of greatness with an interwoven storyline, rich plot history, high production value and superb acting. It was a show destined for greatness. But subsequent seasons, including this one, have shown an unevenness, both in fluidity and plot mechanics. This has nothing to do with how the current season concludes tonight, which make no bones about it, I'm excited for. And while the show is enormously entertaining, and at times transcendent (Henry Rollins’ attack on Gemma in Season 2, unwrapping the Stahl knot at the end of Season 3, to name a few examples) television, the show suffers creative weaknesses. Aspects of the club’s biker-ness, and their motorcycles specifically, have become a writer's crutch rather than a plot strengthener which is a major problem for a show about, well, a motorcycle gang.
At the risk of sounding didactic, there's a difference between a prop and a plot device. A prop acts as background, a way to emphasize a greater plot point or a chance to add realism. A plot device on the other hand advances, or in this case, ahem, drives the plot and therefore becomes at times, overly critical to the broader story. The motorcycles should be a prop, around and on which the action and story flows. Instead, they are a plot device through which much of the show’s machinations are delivered. It's the reason a large portion of episodes are spent with SAMCRO members shuffling to and fro, getting on and off their bikes, and entering into high-speed (often meaningless, needless and silly) chases meant to hammer home the point again and again, "Hey! Look! We ride motorcycles. Remember!" or possibly worse the writers thinking, “We don’t have anything else for them to do for those two minutes!
There are more than a few examples of this over the course of the series and even from the final third of this past season. Chasing the gangbangers all over the hood in search of the stolen guns (A completely wasted episode). Opie tearing away from Jax in his hunt for Clay (fine until Jax tore after him on a hearse and then a stolen crotch rocket), or Tigg’s escape from Leroi and the Niners (a chase so implausible, stupid and convoluted that I could probably spend a whole article writing about it). And those are just a couple of examples off the top of my head. There are many more.
These examples are endemic to Sons of Anarchy’s possibly bigger problem: there isn’t enough story to tell. Great shows waste nothing. No moment is too small, too inconsequential. No moment is ignored, nothing needlessly added to fill time. Great shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Mad Men rarely deal(t) with the mundane, trivial or schticky because frankly their storytellers didn’t (don't) have the time. They have a whole world to explore and limited on air time to do so. I don't get the sense the Sons of Anarchy folks operate with the same sense of urgency.
Part of this stems from the open-endedness of television contracts, and I understand that argument (Lost had this problem throughout as does Dexter). But given unlimited time, why not explore the finer points of the club? The motivation behind the ancillary characters? The mechanisms of Charming? Some of the greatest moments of the show have been when we’ve seen tiny slices of the characters that gave a greater fundamental understanding of their whole being (Bobbie as Elvis impersonator for extra cash, Tigg’s daughter coming back looking for money, the story of Chibb’s and his estranged family). But instead of these “moments” as show building, the writers are often content to manufacture chaos by painting SAMCRO into a corner and then working to write SAMCRO out of said corner, often by outrunning someone in a sports car.
This is not to say the entire story is dysfunctional. Rather, much of it is excellent and well-thought out. The Gemma/ Clay/ Tara/ Jax story, on which the show hinges, has always been strong and intriguing. But when we step away from that, albeit large arc, we are left with too many motorcycle chases, sticky situations, needless hijinx, unneeded problems, devolving plot arcs, and white noise. Simply put: too much mayhem.