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'Sons of Anarchy' Season Premiere: When Is A Controversy Not A Controversy?

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Do not read this post unless you've seen the Season 6 premiere of FX's "Sons of Anarchy," "Straw." 

Subtle is not often a word used to describe "Sons of Anarchy," but the school shooting that takes place in the closing minutes of the season premiere is not, in my opinion, exploitative or cynically rendered.

There's no doubt that "SOA" thrives on getting people's attention, often with Gothic violence and blood-soaked black humor, but we did not see the bodies of children fall in "Straw." Shots rang out, but the event itself happened off-screen, without glorifying the shooter or willfully exploiting horrible memories of real-life events like Newtown or Columbine.

If anything, the shooting, committed by a middle schooler from the small California town the Sons of Anarchy motorcycle club calls home, is a grim but relevant reminder that the club's lucrative gun-running business has consequences for its community. And the way the boy who shot up the school was threaded through the hour, crossing paths with several characters, actually spoke to a sincere desire to connect the club members to something bigger than their own narrow set of concerns.

That's not to say that "Sons of Anarchy" knows what to do with the hot potato it cooked up. 

The show may have evoked events like the Sandy Hook school shooting in a relatively respectful fashion, but it doesn't appear to want to engage in a conversation about guns in American culture. Judging by the first three episodes of the third season, the storyline amounts to a missed opportunity.

"SOA" has typically told its stories from within a closed environment made up almost entirely of gang members, criminals, drug cartel operatives and law enforcement. Many of the club's would-be antagonists -- the people who would or could theoretically keep the gun-toting MC in line -- are themselves deeply flawed or compromised (often in ways that weaken them as characters, a frustrating trend that continues this season). In any event, most of the violence in this world is visited upon those who have chosen "the life," and even when that brutality blows back on the Sons' family members and allies, it's not unexpected. 

The wider context in which the Sons operate and the question of where their guns end up are not things the show's viewers have been asked to contemplate much. The bikers occasionally profess their desire to protect Charming, where they set up shop decades ago, even as they get deeper into deals that bring them into conflict with very bad people. It's a hypocritical stance for the drama's lead characters to take, and examining the ugly side effects of the Sons' businesses is certainly a valid storytelling arena for the show to enter. 

It was hard not to view the fictional school shooting -- as horrific as it was to contemplate -- as a chance for the show to engage more deeply with themes and ideas it's usually avoided. But the impression I got from the first three Season 6 episodes is that "SOA" couldn't back away from the implications of the school-shooting plot fast enough. That's disappointing, even if it's not really a surprise. 

"SOA" has always been a pulpy, melodramatic thrill ride, and I didn't expect that to change this year, but the show has also positioned itself as a character drama and has appeared to have higher ambitions. Those ambitions are only sporadically realized, given that "SOA" is too often content to rev its engine without necessarily going anywhere.

But now that it's beginning its endgame, I thought the show might be getting more rigorous and challenging in its storytelling. "SOA" will likely end its run with its seventh season, and examining the characters' moral culpability in fostering a culture of violence -- not just in the clubhouse or within the Teller-Morrow family, but in the wider world -- would be one way to deepen the show before wrapping up the story of the outlaw MC for good. 

Are America's current gun laws sufficient? Do they need better enforcement, or should they be expanded and revised? How can guns be kept from the hands of those who are not old enough or sane enough to use them? What kinds of guns and magazines should be allowed (or banned)? What's the role of popular culture in glorifying violence and the people who commit it (a fair question to ask of a show that sells gun-shaped lamps and coffee mugs)? 

These are just a few of the issues debated with each new round of real-life gun-related bloodshed, but the next two episodes of "SOA" don't take on those kinds of questions with any specificity or seriousness. Characters are horrified by what happened, of course, and one especially cynical character has an unsurprisingly black-hearted take on the event, but within the world of the show, the shooting is not really a starting point for discussion or debate.

The dispiriting fact is that "SOA" doesn't seem too interested in exploring the most compelling questions the season premiere raised. The show could have dug into the moral, social, political or thematic ramifications of what the boy did, but "SOA" allows the fallout from the school incident to devolve into a mechanical problem-solving exercise. The fact that a Sons-distributed weapon was used to kill kids ultimately is, in these early episodes, just one more problem that the Sons' leader, Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam), has to solve.

Obviously "SOA" isn't about to start channelling "Washington Week in Review" or aping "The Newsroom," nor should it. But why delve into this anguished territory if the show's not going to do much with it?

Then again, "SOA" has proved itself unwilling to take stands in the past. Creatively speaking, it's a conservative show, one that's had a lot of success with a particular formula that it's generally unwilling to tamper with. Sure, "SOA" regularly engages in attention-getting bloodshed, but with a few exceptions, the show has tenaciously clung to its version of the status quo. Few shows are as assiduous about hitting the reset button and filling the screen with superficial developments that have little moral, thematic or emotional impact on the overall story.

As I wrote recently, scripted dramas often have to choose between the "Dexter" model or going the "Breaking Bad" route, and "SOA" hasn't shown much interest in the kind of merciless discipline the AMC show is known for.

That's not to say that aspects of "SOA's" formula can't be effective at times. The drama has an outstanding cast that's occasionally used well -- which is why I'm still watching it, despite its self-imposed limitations.

"SOA" is often at its best when it invokes the silences and secrets that hang between people with complicated histories, and in the opening episodes of Season 6, there are a few excellent scenes between Jax and Tara (Maggie Siff), and alpha couple Clay (Ron Perlman) and Gemma (Katey Sagal). But the show's unwillingness to consistently give depth and dimension to people and stories beyond that inner circle is one of the things that subverts "SOA's" potential. 

So, while my hopes were raised a bit by parts of "Straw," I'm not sure I ever truly expected Season 6 to spend much time on the thorny, complicated implications of the Sons' business ventures. I'd like to be proven wrong by the remainder of the season, but there are several indications that Season 6 will simply engage in business -- or rather, "busy-ness" -- as usual.

Without going into detail about the next two episodes, there's a vagueness and blandness to the way the school-shooting story plays out, as if "SOA" wanted to evade almost every serious ramification of the topic it brought up of its own accord. The glancing nods at the big question -- just how much blood is on the Sons' hands -- serve as appetizers to the feast that never seems to materialize.

"SOA" does try, on occasion, to illuminate the cost of violence to individuals, and there's so much more territory the show could cover before it runs out of road. But engaging in deeper questions about whether the Sons are the good guys or the bad guys, and portraying Jax as something other than a well-intentioned but sometimes misguided man, would force the show outside its well-established comfort zone. That wouldn't be a bad thing, but at this stage, I'm not going to hold my breath and wait for it to happen. 

Should we expect a show about violent bikers to dive headfirst into the hot-button issues surrounding guns and violence in America? Well, yeah, at least a little, if the show itself takes the time and trouble to stage a school shooting.

To me, the question isn't whether a macho biker drama is an appropriate venue for a debate about violence in America. The question is, if not there, then where?

Ryan McGee and I discussed the Season 6 premiere of "Sons of Anarchy" in depth in a new Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.