Aliens attacking a space station. People thinking up ad copy. Lawyers defending an accused murderer. Some guy making meth.
Stories like these can contain moral allegories and gorgeous imagery. The plots can be puzzles that we enjoy solving (or failing to anticipate). Wherever they're set, these tales can make us cry or forget to breathe.
But here's what a plot really is, for the most part: It's an excuse for us spend time with people we like. It's a reason to hang out with people we're interested in, even if we don't like them but can't look away.
Plot, story, whatever you want to call it -- these things are really just a collection of techniques and strategies writers use to apply pressure to characters in order to see what makes them tick, to see what makes them crack or stand firm.
Ideally, dramatic plots work in ways that make the characters more interesting, more iconic, more hateful, more real, more dastardly, more something; events should serve our interest in the people those events are happening to. It shouldn't be the other way around, unless we're talking about a soap like "Revenge" or "Dallas," where melodramatic twists are the whole point and the characters exist to put them in motion.
The problem with "Sons of Anarchy" (Season 5 premieres Tuesday, Sept. 11 at 10 p.m. ET on FX) is that its plot has consumed almost everything around it, including the characters. The overarching story on this drama is a sprawling, ramshackle beast that mostly serves itself, which is a problem for any show that aspires to depict character development, as "SOA" so clearly does.
It's not a new problem for "SOA" -- this piling-on tendency has been evident since Season 3 or so -- but lately it's the Harley version of "Hoarders"; the show appears to be reluctant to throw out story threads, no matter how janky or used up they are. The end result is that the men and women who circulate through the biker gang's clubhouse have, despite their personal charisma, begun to feel like decorations on a rickety pile of plot-choked stuff.
A "previously on" at the start of the season premiere doesn't begin to cover all the story bases, and the characters themselves have to spend a fair amount of time in the first two episodes reminding each other of the ins and outs of various machinations that afflict the club and their associates. Suffice to say the club was in deep trouble at the end of last season, but then a deus ex CIA (who may as well have carried wizard's wand) appeared to save the club from several kinds of jeopardy. Ultimately, in the Season 4 finale, Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman), the biker club president who should have died for his sins, was spared a final exit, thanks to the preferences of a Irishman who barely ever turns up on screen.
Re-establishing where things left off last year isn't unusual in a season-opener, but a lot of the exposition in "SOA's" return serves as a reminder of how much of Season 4 was an exercise in wheel-spinning and the deployment of cliffhangers that went nowhere. The cast of this show is still top-notch; that fact has never been and probably never will be in dispute. What's uncertain is how interested the show is in giving its actors material that stretches and usefully deploys their skills.
It's as if "SOA" thinks we'll change the channel if it doesn't keep throwing twists at us. Twists are fine -- hell, they're fun -- but not when they start making the world and the characters in it seem faintly ludicrous. It's the people we show up for, week after week, and if they are forced to take a back seat to Byzantine machinations that whiz and whir and keep piling up, it's easy for our attention to start wandering.
The thing is, the more ridiculous gyrations of the last two seasons would have been worth it had they made me care more deeply about Jax's bloody ascent to the biker club's throne. But the way he got there was so needlessly convoluted that, despite my appreciation for Charlie Hunnam's committed performance, I care less about Jax's reign than I do about King Joffrey's. As Season 5 begins, it's hard to even know if Jax is making wise choices, given the sheer number of subplots and sidebars that crowd the episodes. And that's the problem when machinations and MacGuffins begin to eat everything around them: They no longer reflect on or deepen the characters, they begin to obscure them.
"I applaud that showrunners are trying to tell ambitious, intricate stories, but there is a real danger that you can overdo it," as writer/director Ken Levine wrote in a recent post. Writers "try their best to lay in the exposition. And on paper it all makes sense. The problem is they're too close to it. The viewer is coming at it fresh. The scenes and explanations fly by so fast nothing lands."
As I noted in a Twitter conversation about Levine's essay, complication is not complexity. But "SOA" isn't the first show to begin mistaking the former for the latter, and Season 5 soon begins embroidering on the tale the show told last year. The first two episodes introduce underworld characters played by Jimmy Smits and Harold Perrineau, and, as has been true every other season, the guest actors are every bit as good as the core cast (my favorite scene in the two episodes I've seen was very simple: It was Jax and Smits' character shooting the breeze in a car).
As Season 5 rolls on, I've no doubt there will be some memorable scenes of poignance, pain and violence. No matter how frustrating the show could be last season, it contained some powerful moments, especially between Hunnam and Maggie Siff as his girlfriend, Tara Knowles.
But there's a contradiction at the heart of "Sons of Anarchy," one that has become more apparent over time: It's a show about uncompromising men that too often compromises; it takes place in a brutal world yet it too often pulls its punches or retreats into clutter on a story level. Complications that result from characters conveniently keeping secrets, overstuffed plots that go in circles and consequences that are avoided or easily undone have made this world and these characters' dilemmas less resonant, less affecting, less real. It's weird that in the show's fifth season, the stakes actually feel lower than they did a couple of years ago.
In the first two episodes of Season 5, I laughed at some twisted barbs, I appreciated the desire to keep the momentum going, and I respected some moments of emotional fallout without feeling particularly engaged by any of it. Part of the reason is because the show's moves are pretty predictable by now, and depending on your level of investment, that's either reassuring or disappointing. Each hour of "SOA" usually contains scenes of on-the-road action, various gangs taking care of business, men confronting each other, women confronting each other, random prostitutes slinking around, acts of violence committed with great energy and bikers coming together around a table. In many episodes, things are capped off by a montage set to mournful music in which we see people smoking, drinking, pondering and doing things they shouldn't.
That formula may still work for you. If so, Godspeed. For me, I think I've run out of road.
Follow Maureen Ryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/moryan