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‘Mayans M.C.’ Review: Kurt Sutter’s Serviceable ‘Sons of Anarchy’ Spinoff Has Room to Improve if it Doesn’t Implode

Lots of emotional trip wires are set quickly in "Mayans M.C.," as Kurt Sutter and Elgin James built a sturdy foundation for a drama that has yet to catch fire.

MAYANS M.C. -- Pictured: Edward James Olmos as Felipe Reyes, JD Pardo as EZ Reyes. CR: Prashant Gupta/FX

Edward James Olmos and JD Pardo in “Mayans M.C.”

Prashant Gupta/FX

Early in the premiere of “Mayans M.C.,” FX’s new continuation of the “Sons of Anarchy” universe, it’s revealed the eponymous Southern California biker gang transports drugs via the poofy waistline of prom dresses. This, on its face, is both a hilarious juxtaposition of the tattooed men’s butch aesthetic, as well as a not-so-subtle “fuck you” to anyone investigating their outlaw lifestyle. Who cares that Richard Cabral, who TV fans know from “American Crime,” doesn’t look like the type of guy who would take great care in protecting a beautiful teal quinceañera gown by draping it in a plastic cover? His character, Johnny “Coco” Cruz — who has a habit of shooting dudes with a sniper rifle and then apologizing with a tossed off, “My bad!” — doesn’t need to tell you jack shit about who he is or why his group is escorting a truckload of dresses on their roaring choppers.

And yet the scene goes by without any attention paid to its eccentricities. You have to mine what you want to find within it, and, so far, that’s the defining takeaway from “Mayans M.C.”: Fans will delight in easter eggs (and obvious callbacks) to “SOA,” while intrigued newcomers might derive enough motivation to keep watching. But there’s nothing astounding here — or at least, nothing as pleasing as watching an ex-con daintily care for a pretty dress.

These details within the world of the Mayans, which is itself an extension of the world from “Sons of Anarchy,” hold more potential than is thoroughly mined in the first two episodes. Packed with plot, shootouts, and carved up, burned up, or otherwise bloodied up bodies, Kurt Sutter’s return to the realm of revving motorcycles and macho posturing has all the ingredients from before, though it’s telling a more grounded story. By not fantasizing its narrative, Sutter and co-creator Elgin James lose a bit of the vivacity that can make an action-orientated family drama addictive, but there’s ample time — and opportunities — to find new routes to that same destination.

MAYANS M.C. -- Pictured: Sarah Bolger as Emily Thomas. CR: Prashant Gupta/FX

Sarah Bolger in “Mayans M.C.”

Prashant Gupta / FX

There are similarities between the original series and its successor — after all, the Mayans were the first characters to speak in the “Sons of Anarchy” premiere —  but only a few bear any significance (and most can’t be spoken of, for fear of spoilers). So know this: JD Pardo (“East Los High”) is your new lead, Ezekiel “EZ” Reyes, whose entrance via motorcycle speeding over a dead crow is both a nod to the “Sons of Anarchy” pilot (where Charlie Hunnam’s Jax drives by two crows) and toward the kind of blunt storytelling you can expect in “Mayans.” Ezekiel is no Jax; for one, he’s only a prospect in the gang — yet to be officially welcomed on board — and for another, he doesn’t want to be there.

Without spoiling Ezekiel’s motivations, just know he’s not your typical prospect. He’s been brought in by his brother, Angel (Clayton Cardenas), while his father, Felipe (Edward James Olmos), looks on disapprovingly. Felipe is a single parent running a butcher shop; he stresses the importance of family — “Sangre es sangre” is repeated often enough in these initial two hours even sub-average linguists will never forget what “blood” means in Spanish — but Felipe isn’t on good terms with Angel. What happened to the Reyes family matriarch could be connected to the separation, but there’s plenty going on in the present to disturb things, too.

The Mayans have been working for a powerful Mexican cartel, helping facilitate their smuggling operations over the U.S./Mexico border, but now they find themselves torn between their employees, the authorities, and a mysterious third party. There’s a Mexican rebel force trying to disrupt the cartel’s operations without the law on their side, and even though the Mayans are only supposed to be hired hands, they’re getting deeper and deeper into a dangerous battle.

MAYANS M.C. -- Pictured: Clayton Cardenas as Angel Reyes. CR: Prashant Gupta/FX

Clayton Cardenas in “Mayans M.C.”

Prashant Gupta / FX

Keep in mind, this is just an overview, and it still doesn’t cover the vast array of interpersonal conflicts within the series. “Mayans M.C.” sets up a big world filled with squabbles on all sides; though there are plenty of gangs united behind the same goal, many individuals have their own agendas, some secret, some obvious, some personal, some strictly business, but they’re all ready to stir up trouble. The ensuing action can feel obligatory — like an uninspired firefight that’s ultimately just an excuse for a cameo — but it’s also an accepted part of the world and at least one brawl is used to come down from the show’s testosterone high and have a laugh.

Much of “Mayans M.C.” feels familiar. Some run-of-the-mill plotting is explained by how predominantly a hit like “Sons of Anarchy” pervaded the shows that followed it. The rest is routine for the sake of growing the franchise. But there are enough promising pieces here to give fans hope. Pardo is already more of a chameleon than Hunnam was then (or is now), and the cast around him is strong (notably Cardenas and Cabral). The rebel group adds a moral gray area to the allegiances that should pay dividends down the line, and episodes feature sound structuring with compelling emotional payoffs.

There aren’t enough enlightened formal choices to guarantee improvement from here on out; in fact, “Mayans” already feels a little too comfortable in its choices for a show with a lot of simmering feuds. The dialogue can be as blunt as the cold-blooded torture devices, making “Mayans M.C.” a show you have to want to watch to enjoy. But the sequel is far from a careless follow-up; it’s a deliberate expansion that’s at least within spitting distance of “SOA” quality. Just don’t hit the dresses — Coco won’t be happy.

Grade: B-

“Mayans M.C.” premieres Tuesday, September 4 at 10 p.m. ET on FX.

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