The premise is simple: get people to watch a small sample size (3-5 episodes) of a show they’ve never seen and write about their experience. Someone who’s a big fan of one show will pick out what they think are the best episodes/representation of the show, then the n00b will watch and report back.
So here we are. Select members of the staff have been tucked away at Bro Jackson HQ, all sharing a single TV and Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and HBOGo passwords and we’re ready to tell you which shows impressed us enough to be worthy of your valuable binge viewing time.
By and large, the shows on our list are passionate favorites, cult classics, or critical darlings. The people who recommend the episodes are fanatics. The people who watch them are well-versed in pop culture, but have, for whatever reason, never added this show to their DVR.
We’ll keep track of whether they’re thumbs up, thumbs down noob-wise so that we can render an opinion at the end of this experiment whether the average joe should listen when someone waxes rhapsodic about the Flavor of the Week TV.
Robert Inks (recapper, “Better Call Saul,” “24”) recommended this show to Jared Mintz (NBA)
The Commitment: 92 episodes over 7 seasons
The Platform: Netflix Streaming, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus
The Pitch: “Sons of Anarchy” is what TV looks after the high-minded nihilism of the much-ballyhooed 2000’s Era of the Anti-hero gets dragged for 20 miles on a pockmarked stretch of rural California highway. It’s a potboiler of duty, morality, inebriation, and lust, set on fire and thrown through your windshield. This is what “The Sopranos” could have been if it had been beholden to its viewers instead of the poetic purgatory of David Chase’s unfettered ego.
The basic setting is Hamlet on a Harley: Jackson “Jax” Teller is vice president of the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original (sometimes referred to as SAMCRO), a Hell’s Angels knockoff that operates out of the fictional town of Charming, California. Jax’s stepfather, Clay Morrow, is married to Jax’s mom, Gemma, and used to be best friends with Jax’s dad before the latter died under mysteeeerious circumstances. The club and the town are populated by a bunch of “Hey, That Guy!” character actors who all apparently jumped at the chance to grow their hair long and not wash it for a decade. At its best, the show uses all the sex, violence and crime implied in the premise to tell the story of a fragile dynasty that always seems to be one busted arms deal away from crumbling into dust, with all the betrayals and moral compromises that come with keeping it propped up. At its worse, the show forgets that last part and simply busies itself with keeping a steady body count.
In its first two seasons, the show burned through plotlines at a fascinating but unsustainable pace, leading to a creative stagnation that reached its breaking point during Season 3, when the whole SAMCRO gang shipped off to Ireland to dick around with the IRA for no good goddamn reason. Fortunately, a course correction and clever continuity reset after that ill-advised subplot got the crew back on American soil in Season 4, but the show found itself struggling again in the next season with a long, rudderless arc featuring an antagonist that was supposed to be a coolly menacing change of pace from the average unglued crank-snorter SAMCRO usually faced, but instead just looked kind of weak and ineffectual. But happily, as generally happens with serialized crime dramas, the final two seasons feature the long-in-coming, but still utterly riveting, dismantlement of the Teller-Morrow family’s empire, and in the final few episodes you’ll stop wondering who’s gonna win and start wondering who’s gonna survive.
“Pilot” (Season 1, Episode 1)
I have a feeling a lot of these breakdowns will involve pilot episodes. It’s especially important for this show because the narrative arc of the first season heavily involves Jax being alternately influenced and repelled by a manuscript written by his father shortly before his death that details his growing disillusionment with SAMCRO. The first episode lays the groundwork for the delicate relations SAMCRO has internally, with rival MCs (particularly the Mayans, a Latino gang with backing from Mexican drug lords), and with the town of Charming and its well-meaning but generally cowardly law enforcement. Some of the dumb ideas presented in this episode will be thankfully dispatched when the writers realize how creatively bankrupt they are, but a surprising amount of what’s presented here is a good model for how the show’s characters will behave when the shit really starts to hit the fan.
“Patch Over” (Season 1, Episode 4)
This is the first episode you really begin to understand creator Kurt Sutter’s commitment to coloring in all of the show’s corners. The season’s main plot to this point is pushed down for a little bit to explore a little biker gang inside baseball. When the Mayans threaten an ally MC in Nevada, SAMCRO decides that they can relieve the pressure — and call in a favor — by patching the club into the Sons of Anarchy organization. We’re also shown a ground-level, human side of the operation, where women are passed around like blow-up dolls and petty grudges lead to dudes doing fucked up shit to each other that almost — but not quite — cracks the thin veneer of “brothers for life” bullshit everybody keeps spouting at each other.
“The Sleep of Babies” (Season 1, Episode 12)
The show’s Shakespearean aspirations come to the fore when a season’s worth of backbiting and machinations come unraveled. Clay has to make a tough decision about the loyalty of one of his lieutenants, but a series of unfortunate coincidences lead to a brutal, tragic death that only serves to put everybody deeper in the shit.
“Albification” (Season 2, Episode 1)
This is the introduction of arguably SAMCRO’s weirdest antagonist, a buttoned-down white supremacist named Ethan Zobelle. Dude announces he’s in town by having Gemma gang-raped by a group of skinhead thugs that include, weirdly enough, Henry Rollins. Gemma’s rape is an example of “Sons of Anarchy” at its best and worst: The rape itself is easily one of the top five hardest things to watch in the series’ run, but Gemma’s season-long recovery from the trauma turns her into one of the most compelling characters on the show. I mean, I’m not gonna lie: More often than not, the show treats women like dogshit. But at least one woman character gets to show how tough you truly have to be to hang out with a bunch of smelly, drunken, leather-clad psychopaths all day, and it’s fascinating to watch.
“With an X” (Season 4, Episode 6)
One of Sons of Anarchy’s best story arcs involves the moral conflagration that erupts when law enforcement finds leverage on one of SAMCRO’s heretofore minor players, Juice Ortiz. Turns out that Juice is half-black, which contravenes the MC’s (old, racist) bylaws, and the cops are threatening to tell the club if Juice doesn’t get them some evidence that SAMCRO has expanded its criminal repertoire to include cocaine smuggling. In “With an X,” Juice has nicked a kilo of coke from a shipment, damaging the fragile alliance between SAMCRO and its drug connection as they search for the thief, and an internal conflict that quickly turns violent for Juice.
“Laying Pipe” (Season 5, Episode 3)
This one is pretty far in the deep end, so I’m sorry if not a whole lot of the stuff on the margins makes sense. However, the episode’s payoff is the epitome of the show’s (literally) pulpy melodrama. Lemme break it down for you: SAMCRO’s facade is starting to crack, and Gemma and Clay are on the outs. Gemma’s shacked up with an ex-gangster named Nero Padilla (played by Jimmy fucking Smits!!) while her boys are in way over their head in a turf war with a rival gang led by a dude named Damon Pope. Pope’s playing the long game, trying to divide and conquer rather than just going at SAMCRO old-school violent style, and to that end he’s contrived to land Jax and a few of his friends in jail, where Pope’s guys on the inside can shank ‘em at their leisure. Jax has friends of his own, but they might not be enough to get him out in one piece.
Jared’s Reaction: Should I stay or should I go?
Over the last few years, few shows have been hyped up on social media as much as “Sons of Anarchy,” which has made me really curious to see if it’s as good as advertised.
A little background: I’m addicted to basketball. From the end of October through early January, most of my “free time” is spent watching, tweeting about, and covering both college hoops and the NBA. Every offseason, I pick a new show to binge watch to make up for lost time, with my last two summers being consumed by “Breaking Bad” and “The Wire.”
Highly regarded as two of the best TV series in television history, I knew I was going to have a hard time picking a show for 2015, especially one as gripping as those two. Long story short, I did a poll and “SOA” wound up being one of my finalists, but a lot of people told me it really drags and it isn’t totally convincing.
I was eventually talked into starting “The Shield.” And then this BJ Summer Binge Experiment happened, and I switched horses.
Although I only got a handful of episodes into “The Shield” before I began this “SOA” assignment, I saw why people were so high on the Michael Chiklis cop show. It’s thrilling, the characters are constantly being backed into corners, there’s lots of tension, and it’s already been revealed that most of the main characters are dealing with some kind of struggle.
By the same token, some of the big weaknesses that I was warned about from “SOA” have already peeked their head out at me just five episodes in.
For one, as much as I like him, I just can’t buy Ron Perlman as the head of a biker gang. I’ve always had this misconceived notion that Perlman played Harry from “Harry and the Hendersons,” and I can never get past thinking he looks too much like Chewbacca to be taken serious. Maybe it’s my fault for not being up on “Hellboy,” but I can’t buy into Perlman, even though from the five episode sample I’ve been given he seems to play the role of Clay really well.
For those of you who have seen “Breaking Bad,” Clay feels an awful lot like the Hank of this show for me. I’m kind of struggling to buy him as a badass at first, and I’m forced to almost root against his character because he ultimately seems to have interests that conflict with the main character (Jax), but I have to buy his legitimacy as a power player on the show because he’s a boss.
Alright, that’s my Perlman spiel.
Another character/actor I can’t really buy into is Gemma, who’s portrayed by Pegg … Katey Sagal. I love Sagal, and understand the role of Gemma as the MILF who “emotionally oversees the boys club,” but the first couple of episodes try to force her onto me as “the hottest bitch on the planet,” and I wasn’t really going for it. I know this is where it hurts that I don’t actually have experience hanging out at a biker gang-run auto repair shop, but if she’s walking around my friends and I, we’re not all biting our knuckles.
Maybe it’s that the show tries to portray her as a controlling bitch and it really works in making me not like her, but Gemma is not for me.
I don’t mean to keep being so picky and condescending about the characters, but few things turn me off to a show more than a main character who seemingly doesn’t have flaws, and the flaws he does have, happen to make him too cool for school. Yes, I’m talking about one Jackson “Jax” Teller, who in the first handful of episodes is introduced to us as a gangster with a conscience, a new single father to an extremely premature baby, who’s baby mother is a (hopefully) recovering addict. Since Jax’s father passed, it seems everyone in his circle has an agenda involving him that may go against his best interests, but he has a ho-hum, hardworking attitude about everything, as he shoots more accurate than Robin Hood and slays babes with ease.
The two most pretentious Jax moments in my five episode arch both occur in Season One Episode Four, where Jax beats the shit out of a random lowly civilian who was posing on his chopper, hits him with the cliche “never sit on another man’s bike!” before riding off with his girl, and then later in the episode is referred to as the Captain Kirk of Biker Gangs. Gag.
Now that I’ve roasted the show’s three main characters, the five episodes that Robert recommended to me gave me a glimpse into what kind of trouble SAMCRO gets into, and how it seems there’s always a conflict: whether it be with a rival gang, the feds, or potential internal corruption.
SOA doesn’t seem like the type of show that makes you think too hard, and presents a decent amount of relatively exciting action. Whether or not you can buy a couple of dozen middle aged goons firing off hundreds of rounds at each other and pretty much everyone coming out unscathed is a different story.
I didn’t really feel compelled to hit “watch the next episode” until I got finished with “Patch Over” (the premiere of Season 2), which makes me feel conflicted bout whether or not I want to watch this show. Normally, if I’m not begging for more after the first couple of episodes I’m not about to commit 50-100 hours to a show. However, “Sons of Anarchy” is filled with action, revolves around guns, drugs, violence, and whores, and clearly has a bunch of backstabbing and drama.
The Verdict? I’m 95 percent certain that I’m going to stick with “The Shield” before I cram in any more “SOA,” but I definitely can’t say I didn’t enjoy the show despite being overly cynical about the characters.
Kat Gordon (recapper, “True Detective,” “Game of Thrones”) recommends this show to Eddie Strait (#BroKnows90s, “The Defense Rests”)
The Commitment: 13 episodes over 2 seasons
The Platform: Comcast OnDemand, HBOgo
The Pitch: This show is a comedy-loving pop culture fan’s wet dream. It gives us the holy trinity: 1) realistic behind-the-scenes footage of how big budget movies are made, 2) A-List celebrities playing deliberately opposite their public perceptions, and 3) the same cringe-inducing comedy we can reliably expect from Ricky Gervais, except that he does most of it in front of celebrities and paparazzi, taking it to new heights (depths?)
Gervais plays Andy Millman, an aspiring actor who, along with his best friend Maggie Jacobs (the incredibly accessible Ashley Jensen) earns a living being a “background artist” on studio movies in London (there are actually a lot of inside jokes that the British probably get, but I don’t). The juxtaposition of their real lives (broke and struggling) and their fake lives (dressed for Elizabethan court or a black tie cocktail party) is always fascinating (seems the worse they’re off in life, the more flamboyantly they’re dressed on set), as is their proximity to major celebrities, the kind who have publicists so good, we never get a glimpse of them without their celebrity armor on. That is used to Gervais’ advantage, as he creates personalities for them that we would never suspect and they most certainly aren’t.
Millman yearns to be taken seriously as an actor, and he puts in lots of time hustling because his agent (Stephen Merchant at his most hilariously oblivious and incompetent) fails to do so on his behalf. He writes a television show based on a factory job he used to have and shops it around London, taking advantage of his brushes with fame, with varying results. At the end of Season 1, it actually gets picked up, he is cast in the starring role, and suddenly his dreams are coming true. However, it’s a case of “be careful what you wish for” because the BBC dumbs the show down so much that Millman hates it, and yet the dumber they make it, the more popular it gets. He’s trapped in a role he hates, on a show he loathes, saying a catchphrase he despises, and he begins to take it out on Maggie. The narrative provides a perfectly symmetrical arc, and a beautiful closed loop, slowly driving a wedge between the two friends and culminating in a finale where (no spoilers), everything resolves definitively.
Meanwhile, Gervais commits all the same painfully awkward shenanigans that he always does, and Jensen keeps pace with him admirably. Enough said. But alongside these two, we see Patrick Stewart is obsessed with boobs, Orlando Bloom has fallen in love with himself in the mirror, and Daniel Radcliffe carries an unrolled condom in his pocket to prove he’s not a virgin.
(Pilot S1, Ep 1) We meet the three principal characters — the dissatisfied Andy, the long suffering Maggie, and Darren the oblivious agent. Andy makes fun of a woman with cerebral palsy, lies to a priest, and tries to be nice to a distastefully Oscar-hungry, foul-mouthed Kate Winslet.
(S2, Ep 1) Andy finally gets his dream job, but it’s not what it’s cracked up to be. Back on the movie set, Maggie keeps getting put in her place by an arrogant actress who’s not that much further up the food chain than she is, all the while unintentionally insulting Orlando Bloom.
Eddie’s reaction: “Are you having a laugh? Is he having a laugh?”
I’m a sucker for a lot of things when it comes to comedy: Seth Rogen, dudes getting hit in the nads, and celebrities playing fictionalized versions of themselves. The three episodes of “Extras” I watched had only one of those things. But man, does it get a lot of mileage out of that one thing. In the long history of actors taking the piss out of themselves, my favorite iteration of this is Luis Guzman on “Community,” but I think Neil Patrick Harris’ turn in “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” is the probably the one to capture the zeitgeist the most, at least in the last 15-20 years.
Before I get to the actual show I should mention its co-creator, Ricky Gervais. Prior to this, I hadn’t seen anything he had done. I’d seen him on various late night shows, awards shows, and in the news whenever he’d rankled someone with one outrageous comment or another. I find him to be more intelligent and interesting than actually funny. I call this the Russell Brand Paradox. Three episodes of “Extras” later and I can’t say I’m entirely won over by Gervais’ comedy stylings, but I’m certainly on the right path.
I liked the first and third episodes, but the second episode was the one that convinced me to watch the rest of the series, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The first episode I watched, “Kate Winslet,” has a strong running gag about Maggie’s boyfriend being really into phone sex, which scores big laughs when Winslet joins in the dirty talk. People pantomiming sex acts and making up gibberish euphemisms for said acts is never not funny, and Winslet game for anything (“I’d love it if you stuck your Willy Wonka between my Oompa Loompas.”). The fact that she’s dressed as a nun of course makes it even better. Winslet sets a high bar, and, surprisingly, Orlando Bloom kills it in the next episode. Celebrities being super vain is hardly a new bit, but Bloom just embraces it in a way that almost makes you wish he was like that in real life. It takes really gumption and delusion to scour magazines to see where you rank on a “celebrity snog list” (#1, of course) while also telling stories about how nobody was interested in Johnny Depp while on the “Pirates” set. The last episode* I watched was a bit of a disappointment as Robert DeNiro was just kind of there.
As for the main plot, Andy’s struggle to get his sitcom made got better and better. A scene where the sitcom is being filmed and one of the actors can’t get anything right was my favorite part of the 90 minutes I watched. Flubbing lines is one thing, but missing marks, and having character name changed because you can’t keep your real and fictional identities straight is especially pathetic. It’s a hilarious scene, but one that, for me, showed me that Gervais and Merchant can do awkward and funny at the same time. (Yes, I’m aware that’s what they’re known for.) Prior to that, the awkward scenes tilted too much to the cringeworthy, whereas this one struck the right balance and had the added layer of making me feel bad for both Andy and the old man, even though I couldn’t stop laughing at them. I don’t know if this is just a case of me getting in sync with the show or the show running at peak efficiency, but I’m hopeful that when I watch the show later I’ll find more humor in the early awkwardness.
One thing I thought of frequently throughout this three episode trial was “Louie.” To me it feels like Louis CK and Gervais two acerbic peas in a pod. Tonally, the shows hit a lot of the same beats and find a similar ground in terms of making their leads squirm and misstep frequently. I’m not sure how that comparison will holdup once I’ve seen all of “Extras,” but I’ll be sure to report back if we ever do a follow post.