Some say if Shakespeare were alive now, he’d be writing for television. Well, perhaps Coronation Street. Many have suggested over the years that Ena Sharples and her two mates were partial to a bit of eye of newt with their milk stouts. Wild West drama Deadwood was much admired for the Bard-ish timbre of its epic swearing. And our own Outrageous Fortune has some fun using quotes as episode titles, although I’m not sure Shakespeare was foreseeing Pascalle’s abortive idyll as a handbag magnate when he spoke of “The fatness of these pursy times.”
Now we have Sons of Anarchy. The latest assault by American cable television on our quivering sensibilities was conceived as “Hamlet on a Harley”. Something certainly is rotten in the very fictional town of Charming, home of the Sons of Anarchy motorcycle club. The Hamlet reference is presumably to the family situation of young Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam), vice-president of the club founded by his late father.
The new gang leader is his father’s best friend, Claudius … I mean, Clarence, or Clay for short. Clay is now married to Jax’s mother, Gemma. Or, as it goes in Hamlet, “Our sometime sister, now our Queen.”
Jax doesn’t quite meet his father’s ghost on the battlements, but does communicate with him from beyond the grave. He finds his dad’s diaries and discovers, rather improbably, that the old man had a hippie Harley commune in mind rather than the randomly homicidal, gun-running bunch of thugs the Sons of Anarchy have become. This causes Jax to start procrastinating in a Prince of Denmark-like fashion over whacking rival thugs when ordered to by Clay.
Bikers don’t generally have to grapple with finding themselves sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought and his mother is not impressed. Gemma is really more like Lady Macbeth. Or, possibly, Livia Soprano. Played with years of suppressed-serious-actor gusto by Katey Sagal (Peggy Bundy from Married … with Children), she is so far the scariest character on the show.
In the post-Sopranos era, moral ambivalence is nothing new. The problem with Sons of Anarchy is that these people are awful. Gemma is meant to be driven by genuine, if warped, family values. Yet it seems she would eat her own young to get her way. True, Jax is troubled by the lifestyle. But being relatively humane by comparison to this bunch leaves him a lot of scope for brutality.
On the plus side there’s Ron Perlman as Clay. Perlman has played a great many monsters in his career, possibly because he doesn’t need much make-up. He’s quite extraordinary to watch. And there’s some humour with the mayhem. Gemma, of a vegetarian gang prospect: “Don’t patch him in. Can’t trust anyone who doesn’t eat meat.”
As for pushing the bad-taste-at-9.30pm envelope, the series pulls its weight with lines like “Jesus Christ, put that deformed nut-bag away.” And apparently, the series gets better. In the second season, they bring in some truly vile white supremacists to make the bikers look … less vile. But snap on the Nazi biker helmet, this is going to be a gruelling ride. As Perlman pointed out in an interview, “When you look at the fifth act of Hamlet, nobody gets out of that mother alive.”
The Documentary channel’s Winnebago Man was also vehicle-related with industrial-strength swearing, but this was much more likely to restore your faith in humanity. And in the internet. Back in the 80s, a bloke named Jack Rebney attempted to make sales videos for motor-home company Winnebago. Let’s say he didn’t have the temperament for the task. The Basil Fawlty-esque ranting out-takes from his efforts were passed hand to hand by cult enthusiasts until YouTube saw him go viral.
Rebney seemed to see himself as a Henry Thoreau-like social rebel. Others knew him as the Winnebago Man, the RV Guy and/or the Angriest Man in the World. Such Rebney outbursts as, “I don’t want any more bullshit any time in the day from anyone. Including me”, found their way as sly cult references into movies and television.
By the time filmmaker Ben Steinbauer tracked Rebney down he was 76, near-blind and living like a hermit on top of a mountain in Northern California. The making of the doco was, unsurprisingly, a prickly process. You wondered whether the project was merely destroying the magic. But Rebney allowed himself to be taken along to a screening at the Found Footage Film Festival, where he finds a rapturous reception for what Steinbauer calls “his swearing, ranting, unrestrained self”. Were they admiring the guy or taking the postmodern piss? A bit of each, probably. But the look of delight on Rebney’s face did you good to see.
SONS OF ANARCHY, TV3, Wednesday, 9.30pm.