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Review: 'Mayans M.C.' is a familiar antihero tale set on the border

Review: 'Mayans M.C.' is a familiar antihero tale set on the border
JD Pardo stars as EZ Reyes in a scene from "Mayans M.C.," premiering on Sept. 4. (Prashant Gupta / Associated Press)

It’s been nearly four years since “Sons of Anarchy,” a bloody tale of fathers, sons and family betrayal set among a Northern California biker gang, took its final ride on FX. The Shakespearean saga, created by Kurt Sutter and centered on reluctant bad boy Jackson “Jax “Teller (Charlie Hunnam), was very much a product of its era. But TV has since moved on, discovering interesting storiesthat don’t revolve around white male antiheroes.

Enter “Mayans M.C.,” which premieres Tuesday on FX and follows an eponymous gang of Latino outlaws along the southern border with Mexico. Billed as a spinoff of “Sons of Anarchy” and co-created by Sutter and Elgin James, it relocates the action to the dusty, depressed towns of inland California and shares a significant amount of narrative DNA, if not (yet) any main characters, with its predecessor. The names and faces may be different, but the ruthless criminals, the charred and maimed corpses, the cool leather jackets — they’re all here!

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Once the stuff of network sitcoms and primetime soaps — think “Melrose Place,” “Frasier” — spinoffs have lately grown more common in the world of serious (or serious-ish) cable dramas. AMC has “Better Call Saul” and “Fear the Walking Dead,” while HBO is currently developing a “Game of Thrones” prequel. Rather than slowing down, Peak TV is reproducing.

The good news is that you don’t have to know anything about “Sons of Anarchy” to watch “Mayans M.C.” — though fans of the earlier series will be pleased by a few brief cameos in the pilot. The bad news is that even if you’re a newbie to the Sutter-verse, the series may feel overly familiar despite its inclusive bent.

The executive producers and cast of "Mayans M.C." speak to the representation the "Sons of Anarchy" spin-off brings.

Recently released early from prison, Ezekiel “E.Z.” Reyes (J.D. Pardo) is a “prospect” — a new recruit — in the local chapter of The Mayans motorcycle club. The gang, whose members include E.Z.’s brother Angel (Clayton Cardenas), has formed an uneasy but lucrative alliance with a heroin cartel, headed by the slick and ruthless Miguel Galindo (Danny Pino), who now happens to be married to E.Z.’s high school sweetheart, Emily (Sarah Bolger).

When the Mayans are ambushed en route to Vegas and lose $2.4 millions of dollars in “product” (a.k.a heroin), their quest for vengeance eventually leads them to a group of rebels looking to undermine the cartel’s reign of terror. Despite their affiliation with Galindo, the Mayans are more well-meaning vigilantes than out-and-out bad guys. Sure, they might casually dispose of bodies in the desert, but they’ll also donate their ill-gotten money to an underground detox clinic.

Like “Sons of Anarchy” (and “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos”), “Mayans M.C.” is concerned with family — both the actual and the criminal kind. Unfortunately, the theme is explored with little subtlety. “Blood is blood. The only thing that ever matters,” says Felipe (Edward James Olmos), E.Z.’s father, a butcher and widower who steers his son toward more literary pursuits. E.Z. and Angel reiterate their love for and loyalty to each other so often it seems inevitable they’ll turn on each other by the season finale.

In another familiar twist, E.Z. is a protagonist who wears his tough guy persona reluctantly. We see him in flashbacks, clean-shaven and wearing a bright red Stanford sweatshirt suggesting he wasn’t always destined for the outlaw lifestyle. Yet further details of his backstory are frustratingly scant. We know little about what sent E.Z. to jail, or the circumstances surrounding his mother’s death around the same time. By withholding this information, Sutter and James may be trying to create a tantalizing sense of mystery, but the result is needless confusion.

Directed by Norberto Barba, the first two episodes of “Mayans M.C.” capture both the vibrance and the danger of the border setting. The pilot opens with a montage of the Mayans as they sew bags of heroin into the lining of tacky evening gowns, while another memorable sequence follows the gang members as they carry a wounded man across the border via an elaborate underground tunnel that would make El Chapo proud.

If only the writing possessed such a strong sense of place. Real-life human drama at the border has been playing out, with heartbreaking power, on American televisions for months, and the opioid epidemic continues to ravage communities across the country. Yet “Mayans M.C.” seems uninterested in exploring these timely sociopolitical themes, instead telling a tale of antiheroes that feels more like a throwback than a spinoff.

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