Badfellas 

“X is the new Y.” It’s a joke and a cliché. A cliché used with such willful abandon that it’s dangerously close to becoming this generation’s “Have a Nice Day.” In a media age so suffused and preoccupied with branding and cross-branding and brand-extension, it has become a part of speech.

It’s not surprising, then, to hear FX’s new hardboiled crime drama Sons of Anarchy called “the new Sopranos” by media outlets. They’re both about crime families — Italian on the one hand and biker on the other. They’re both ostensibly intended to humanize evil, to show us how close we normal people can come to it.

Except Sons of Anarchy is the antithesis of The Sopranos. Well, no. The antithesis of The Sopranos is something like The 700 Club. As far as crime family dramas go, though, these two are fire and ice. Sopranos was good. This is not.

The quality gap is enormous. Everywhere The Sopranos was funny and prescient, Sons of Anarchy is stale. The dialogue clunks, the characters are mean, the stories are forgettable. Good gangster stories create a mystique around bad people, making them seem superhuman despite their mortality while humanizing them despite their inhumanity. Good gangster stories challenge our ethics.

The Sopranos had been stealing and killing for centuries with blatant disregard for America’s overarching values system. Cracks form in that dividing wall with each generation that grows up less paisan and more cracker. It leads to hardened mobsters crying on shrinks’ couches and whatnot. Culture clash. Great stuff.

Sons of Anarchy, which stars the usually very good Ron Perlman and Katey Sagal, though, is about thoroughly American outlaws who start out forming a bike clique and become gunrunning thugs. Their crises of conscience never rise to crises of faith. They grew up with a certain set of values, willfully set them aside, and have to deal with nothing bigger than the occasional Mexican gang or ODing girlfriend. They’re just crappy people.

We’re only a couple episodes in, though, and first-season TV shows are often sketchy and sloppy and go overboard with backstory at the expense of pacing. But they also (almost always) have the show’s tone locked down. With only two or three shots at earning viewers, tone is one thing you have to commit to. It’s crucial, the difference between Rocky and Raging Bull. Between Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2. Between a 12-episode run and oblivion. In this case, I’m rooting for oblivion. •

TIVO-WORTHY

Entourage After five seasons most shows lose direction and fall back on the traits of their beloved characters. Entourage is doing that, too, yet I still watch. And love. (HBO, Sundays at 9 p.m.)

My Super Sweet 16 Presents: Exiled I’m sure producers of this show think taking pampered little bitch heiresses abroad with no credit will turn the girls into better people. It won’t. (MTV, Mondays, 9:30 p.m.)

Easy Money Laurie Metcalf in a show about a family that runs a check-cashing business? How much seedier can you get without a donkey show? (CW, Premieres Sunday, Oct. 5, at 8 p.m.)


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