Mayans M.C. is the follow-up to Kurt Sutter’s long-running FX gang drama Sons of Anarchy, featuring a mostly Latino cast and focusing on a chapter of a motorcycle club that started out as the Sons’ rivals but became their allies. The network’s ads make it seem like the same show with different faces and bikes, and the first half of the pilot episode cements that impression. The hero, new recruit or “prospect” Ezekiel “EZ” Reyes (J. D. Pardo), is an intense young man with rock-hard abs and a wounded stare, like Sons’ Hamlet-esque figurehead Jax Teller. Much of the plot of the first two episodes revolves around the smuggling and sale of drugs (the Sons of Anarchy pilot started with the Mayans’ breaking into a Sons warehouse to steal weapons). The stuttering rumble of Harley-Davidson engines is as much a part of the soundtrack as the rock and blues songs. The action is set in communities on the California-Mexico border that feel like flatter, drier versions of spaces where the Sons rolled. Every now and then, bikers will get into a chase, crash, or gunfight that would be front-page news in reality but seems unremarkable in this context. There are references to recent wars and existing government organizations (here, it’s mainly the DEA) and defunct cartels, but much of the show is set in a spatiotemporal bubble, rarely referring to anything but itself. This is the kind of world where men shake hands and agree to help one another through thick and thin, then one of them disappoints the other and dies of lead poisoning. In the very first episode, the Mayans, who serve as local muscle for the Galindo cartel, lose a shipment of heroin in a hijacking and have to find and punish the individuals responsible, only to discover that simple payback is impossible.
Once you get past all the familiar elements, Mayans M.C. turns into a show with its own personality and focus, though by no means a great one, a detriment in an ultracompetitive TV environment where series that aren’t perfectly formed right out of the gate tend to hemorrhage viewers by the episode. Sometimes the series serves up a sharp character bit, such as the one about EZ’s dad, a butcher-shop owner played by Edward James Olmos, coolly regarding a man who dared to threaten his boy, or a kicky visual flourish, like the opening shot of the second episode, which follows a scorpion crawling across the ground and settling on a discarded pistol. These moments stand out more than they would on a series where every moment dazzles, and they tend to get you thinking about what might’ve been.
Loyalty was never a given on Sons, which took a Godfather-like delight in showing friends and family members double-crossing each other even as they battled common enemies; here, it’s often hard to tell whom to trust because the relationships between people and organizations are tangled, and the scripts withhold key pieces of information to create surprise. You’ll have mixed feelings rooting for some of these characters — this was true on Sutter’s flagship series, and The Shield, which Sutter helped write and produce, and The Sopranos, the godfather of this kind of show — but in all those cases, the question boiled down to simple moral-cognitive dissonance: Is it okay to love these characters because they’re the heroes and they’re passionate and funny and suffer, even though a lot of them are sadistic sociopaths for whom love and tribal loyalty are inseparable? Things get even thornier on Mayans M.C. because the show’s morality has a nesting-doll structure. A set of actions might seem perfectly justifiable in one context, then abhorrent once you get a new piece of information, and then it’ll seem acceptable again once Sutter and his co-creator, Elgin James, drop a third bit on you, putting a frame around a frame around a frame.
I’m being vague here because the first couple of episodes pivot on bombshell revelations that change our frame of reference, then change it again, and again. It’s mildly pleasurable, in an age of social-media plot-guessing, to always be half a step behind the plot. But so far, few of the characters resonate except as variations on previously established cable-crime-show types, though you might come away thinking about Johnny “Coco” Cruz (Richard Cabral), a Mayan who’s shaping up to be the kind of icy-funny hard case that Don Cheadle sometimes plays; Olmos’s butcher with his Chekhovian cleaver (a skilled meat-cutter always comes in handy on shows like this); and Miguel Galindo (Danny Pino), the son of the Galindo cartel’s founder, who’s the sort of person who can order the torture and murder of a man connected to the hijacking and then go home and dote on his wife and child. The low-key machismo of the series wears out its welcome in part because there are so few women and/or noncriminal characters to provide contrast, although there’s good work from Alexandra Barreto as the lesbian mayor of Santo Padre and Carla Baratta as Adelita, a woman who saw her family murdered by the cartel as a child and wants revenge; hopefully in time we’ll see female characters as rich as the ones Maggie Siff, Drea de Matteo, Robin Weigert, and Katey Sagal played on Sons.
In the end, the biggest problem is that the universe created here by Sutter and James feels more like the product of research plus flights of fancy than of a burning need to communicate lived experience. You’re aware that you’re looking at subtle variations on a template rather than recoiling from the shock of seeing something uncategorizably bold and new. James’s own story is as fascinating and troubling as anything depicted on the series: He is Irish, black, Dominican, and Native American; he was adopted; and he spent his teenage years homeless on the streets of Boston. He also co-founded Fuck Shit Up, a gang created to confront skinheads preying on street kids and nonwhite people. The show’s attraction-repulsion to violence and desire to reform criminals without robbing them of free will feel like authentic points of connection between the artist and the material, and the more thoughtfully that Mayans M.C. can examine them — while showcasing the mayhem fans expect from a biker drama — the stronger the show will become.
*This article appears in the August 20, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!