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In dusty Calif. landscapes, 'Terriers' and 'Sons of Anarchy' find fertile ground

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 2010; C01

What I dread most this season is that feeling of borfusion: Boredom + confusion = just sitting there, tired and puzzled, half-watching a pilot episode while Googling names to recall what the actors have done before.

But here, on the cusp of fall, I bring glad tidings! At long last, I have a favorite crime show, sort of: "Terriers," a funny and gripping new dramedy debuting Wednesday night on FX, is a procedural for those of us who think "Law & Order" feels like jury duty. It even stars people who look like some of us, as opposed to people who look like fashion models.

Effortlessly smart, easy to like and exciting to follow, "Terriers" is about an ex-cop named Hank Dolworth (Donal Logue) and a former thief named Britt Pollack (Michael Raymond-James), who work as private investigators in a gritty beach suburb of San Diego. They are scruffy, always broke, and conduct their failing business out of a beat-up blue pickup labeled "Gomez Bros. Pool Service." Hank is a recovering alcoholic still in love with his ex-wife; on stakeouts, he likes to look through Pottery Barn catalogues and expound on the meaning of life, or lack thereof; Britt is trying to reward his veterinarian girlfriend's tolerance by earning an honest living.

Created by "Ocean's Eleven" screenwriter Ted Griffin, "Terriers" exudes an edgy confidence, personified by Logue's swaggeringly acerbic Hank. (And I'd like him even if his name wasn't Hank.) Logue has bounced around different TV shows and indie films for a decade ("The Tao of Steve," anyone?), with good and bad results, but always in need of a meatier part. Here, he's like George Clooney on the inside and Chubby Jesus on the outside. He is thoroughly but soulfully damaged goods. Logue belongs here on FX in much the same way another coarse Irishman, "Rescue Me's" Denis Leary, does.

Raymond-James (some will recognize him as Rene Lenier, the serial-killer Cajun from "True Blood's" first season) is equally good as Britt, who energetically submits to Hank's schemes. Britt is even more terrier-like than Hank; both men are, while not neutered, free to a good home.

"Terriers" nimbly juggles Hank and Britt's episodic caseload, delves into their complicated relationships, and launches a long-haul story arc, which is this: Asked by a down-and-out friend to locate his runaway daughter, Hank and Britt discover a sex-tape bribery scam. That case is convolutedly linked to a property development coverup that goes way beyond the cookie-cutter condos that are under construction atop a toxic dump. California real estate really will kill you, and bodies start piling up.

On paper, nothing about the show looks all that new. Logue's one-liners ("Your brother says 'Hello.' He also says, 'Ouch, why did you shoot me?' ") would appear no quippier than the dialogue from dozens of other snark-detective duds on the cable grid. But as Hank and Britt get more entangled in something sinister -- such as when they are frantically trying to get rid of a body in Hank's bathtub -- I find myself in a rare and anxious mood: After the first five episodes, I can't wait to see what will happen next.

Certainly, "Terriers" is packed with the usual array of drug addicts and hired thugs. And yes, you're supposed to root for Hank and Britt even as their gradated value system leads them to do bad things in the name of good. And yes, the show asks you to laugh at violence, though the gunfire and clock-cleaning seems measured, almost restrained. And yes, by TV-casting fiat, there's a cigarillo-chomping black man (Rockmond Dunbar), a hard-bitten police detective -- Hank's former partner on the force -- who alternately aids and antagonizes our antiheroes. And, of course, there are women in supporting roles (Laura Allen, Kimberly Quinn) ready to act circles around the men in a fraction of the screen time.

But "Terriers" racks up the subtlest accomplishments, especially that strange and magic quality known as tone. The Southern California that you'll see here looks and feels like the rundown, sunblasted-stucco canvas on which Quentin Tarantino splattered his morbidly funny triptychs more than a decade ago. This is the same seedy California we know from Showtime's "Weeds" and often glimpse across the road from Disneyland vacations and rental-car lots at LAX.

Instead of stylish beaches and tony poolside nightclubs, "Terriers" prefers the more squalid Golden State of moral ambiguities and final foreclosure notices. It's a cop show with satirical instincts, and it is well suited to the broken California dreamin' of the current day.

'Sons of Anarchy'

Speaking of West Coast desperados, that sonorous rumble you hear can only be the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club-Redwood Original (SAMCRO, for short), arriving for the much-anticipated third season of creator Kurt Sutter's "Sons of Anarchy," an addictively morose saga about a motorcycle gang in the fictional central California town of Charming.

The story picks up Tuesday night on FX right where it left off: A member of the True IRA gang has stolen the infant son of Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam, as SAMCRO's conflicted heir apparent) in retribution for . . . I forget what. That same Irish guy also killed Half-Sack. Then Jax's mother, Gemma (Katey Sagal, as SAMCRO's protective matriarch) shot Polly for kidnapping her last season and facilitating her rape, and then . . . oh, jeez, where'd we put that Season 2 "Sons of Anarchy" box set?

This isn't soap opera, it's grease opera. If you're only now deciding to have a look at the show-- which I do recommend to the stouthearted -- you're going to need to watch the first 26 episodes, or perhaps hunker down for a remedial hour with the Sons' Wikipedia page.

"Cameron killed Half-Sack and took my grandson," fumes SAMCRO's president, Clay Morrow (the terrific and leonine Ron Perlman), in one of this new season's many moments of helpful exposition. "[Stahl] lied and framed Gemma. That's the real truth." Subplots and characters are now flung in different directions: As Gemma goes into hiding at the home of her estranged and feeble father (ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Hal Holbrook), it seems one or more of the Sons will be headed to Ireland to find the baby.

But the essential theme remains the same -- the Sons struggle to balance their do-bads (supplying arms to criminals) with some do-goods, such as keeping drug dealers out of their peaceful hamlet. (Get it? Hamlet?) Yes, as you may have heard, "Sons of Anarchy" is loosely a "Hamlet"-on-Harleys. It is indeed Shakespearean in its constant sense of foreboding, and it works brilliantly, as the Sons and their women experience a pain that is as ever-present as their criminality. As such, our hurting for them is sometimes clouded by revulsion. Sutter is justified when he grouses about being hosed by a paucity of Emmy nominations for the show and its solid cast.

Without sounding too much like a poindexter who's never ridden a hog, I guess what I like about "Sons of Anarchy," besides the unwaveringly good performances from Hunnam and Sagal, is its escapism and milieu: Take a drive across the United States or stick around Washington during Memorial Day's Rolling Thunder rally and you soon realize how pervasive the middle-aged biker set really is in our culture, and how rarely that is reflected on TV beyond stereotype. (After all, "American Chopper" and Jesse James can't teach us everything about biker culture.)

"Sons of Anarchy" may be wild fantasy and melodrama, but it is tempered by a feeling of verity. It's one of those hairy shows that is so true to its setting and soul that it dares you to sympathize with any of its characters. They're all flawed, which is a fearless way to roll.

"I've been trying to find some kind of balance," Jax confides to the emphysemic Piney (William Lucking), one of the club's elders. "[To do the] right thing for my family, my club. Every time I think maybe I'm heading in the right direction I end up in a place I never even knew could feel this bad. What'd I do, man?"

"You're loyal, decent," Piney says. "You love the right things."

With that, it's off to bash some heads into concrete. As the Bard said, Alas, poor Yorick! I tattooed him.

Sons of Anarchy

(one hour) returns at 10 p.m. Tuesday;

Terriers

(one hour) premieres at 10 p.m. Wednesday, both on FX.

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