There are no easy answers

A little while ago, looking for a new TV series to watch, I came across a recommendation for the show Sons of Anarchy. Various people online described it as being like ‘The Sopranos set within the world of motorbike gangs’. Which sounded excellent and right up my alley so I bought a couple of seasons’ worth of DVDs and settled in for the ride. Sadly, this ended up being a big mistake.

On first glance, there are commonalities between the two shows: both revolve around the lives of a group of men living outside the law in contemporary America; both have troubled leaders, problems with rival gangs and issues with in-fighting. However, the similarities end abruptly there. While The Sopranos is a dark and poignant drama of Shakepearean depth and complexity, Sons of Anarchy is wall-to-wall cliché, a Disney version of what gang life might be like.

As I sat through Sons of Anarchy with an ever-decreasing lack of interest, I started to wonder how two shows that on paper – well, in internet summaries – sound fairly alike, could be so utterly different. And while many of the things done extremely well in The Sopranos are done badly in Sons of Anarchy – casting, acting, music choices, cinematography – the key point of difference is the writing. Or, more specifically, story. While the trials and tribulations of Tony Soprano and his mates bounce between exhilarating, mundane and poignant, the SoA biker gang live a cartoon lifestyle, an ongoing merry-go-round of implausible all-action high drama somewhere between The Dukes of Hazard and The A-Team.

The Sopranos centres around complex characters trying to keep their heads above water, attempting to live out their lives with some balance of joy, honour and dignity. They battle with the tragi-comic conundrums of their lives, eke out little victories and their moral dilemmas resonate profoundly across multiple series. Tony bestrides the whole thing like a grumpy colossus with his hard-won street wisdom and downbeat philosophical asides. (My personal favourite: “They say every day’s a gift, but why does it always have to be a pair of socks?”). Just as in life itself, there’s no black and white and morality is subjective.

In his infamous screenwriting guide Story, Robert McKee says, “Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.” When writers opt for predictable plots and obvious answers, their stories may work briefly as escapism or light entertainment. But they’ll never touch us in the way we’re touched when we’re confronted in fictional worlds by stories closely approximating the truth.

When stories ring true, when they search hard for hidden insights and difficult truths, when they hold up a mirror to the existential frustration of being alive, when they – as McKee says – take life itself as their raw material, they move us in deep and emotionally compelling ways. Be it Tony Soprano’s grizzled intelligence, the black humour of David Brent or Rusty Cohle’s deeply complex ennui, when great writers make difficult decisions and win the war on cliché, the result is stories that resonate because they acknowledge a timeless human truth: there are never any easy answers. Bada bing!


About antmelder
Executive Creative Director at Host/Havas Sydney; passionate vegetarian; lover of books, boxing and Bruce Springsteen.

3 Responses to There are no easy answers

  1. Shaun says:

    Thanks again for this Ant…I look forward to your blogs.
    On a different note, what are your thoughts on the Hopkins/Kovalev fight?

  2. antmelder says:

    Cheers Shaun, glad you like the blog. On the Hopkins-Kovalev thing, it’s a fascinating match-up. The fight is week or so before Hopkins’ 50th birthday! I can’t help feeling that Kovalev is going to catch him in the first half of the fight and stop him. He has limited boxing skill but serious KO power. However, people have written BHop off his whole career and he always finds a way to win, so it wouldn’t hugely surprise me if he fights cagey and manages to sneak a points decision.

    What do you think about Kell Brook-Shawn Porter? I’m not sure about Brook…I fancy Porter to stop him around R10.

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