When smart guys go bad: "Mayans" series and James' life

There is one scene in the "Mayans MC" opener that is virtually unwatchable -- a deeply disturbing and disturbed torture scene. And there are many scenes that are immensely watchable. This "Sons of Anarchy" series has the same mix of personal drama and fierce action. It starts Tuesday (Sept. 4); here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

When “Sons of
Anarchy” had its lethal conclusion, some things were clear:

Viewers want more;
so does the network. This was “the most-watched regular drama
series in FX history,” said spokesman John Solberg. “I think it
averaged about 12 1/2 million viewers.”

Now “Mayans M.C.”
begins ... four years after “Sons” ended. Its debut was nudged by
a convenient failure. “I planned on 'Bastard Executioner' bombing,”
joked Kurt Sutter, creator of all three series.

debuted in 2015, promptly proving what most TV critics had suspected:
There is not a wellspring of American interest in 13th-century
English warfare.

That failure freed
Sutter for his next plan – a series based on the Mayans, the
Mexican-American motorcycle club that befriended the Sons.

The next step? “I
was very aware that a white guy from Jersey shouldn't be writing a
show (alone) that takes place in the Latino subculture,” Sutter
said. That's not because of political correctness – “I don't
really give a (bleep)” -- but because he wanted “to honor this
world and be authentic.”

So he talked to
Latinos. One day, Elgin James came in to meet Sutter and some other
writers. “Within minutes,” Sutter said, “I was so aware that I
was no longer the smartest guy at the table.”

Sutter hired James
as co-creator and thought about him when imagining the lead
character. James, after all, is a brilliant person whose life
skidded; he's been in gangs, in prison, in juvie, in intensive care.

He reflects the idea
of “somebody who is a bright light, who is supposed to have a
different destiny, (but) that energy and that intelligence (is)
applied to an outlaw culture,” Sutter said.

That became the
central character, EZ Reyes. He was the smart one, the star athlete,
the Stanford student with a great girlfriend. Then something went
wrong and he was convicted.

“Survival is all
that counts then,” said JD Pardo, who plays him. “In prison, all
you have is your word.”

Now EZ is out –
the reason soon becomes clear – and is a rookie in his brother's
motorcycle club.

Pardo fits the
golden-guy image, giving EZ a leading-man look and a pensive stare.
He first became a TV regular in the 2004 “Clubhouse,” playing the
ballboy with a Yankees-type team. But the next year, he startled his
agent by seeking “A Girl Like Me,” based on the true story of a
transgender murder victim. “When I read the script, I said, 'I'm
not going out for any pilots this year. I have to do this.'”

He got the role and
established himself as a serious actor who looks like a macho hero.
But could a guy as gifted as the fictional EZ really have his life go
so badly? Perhaps ... as James' own life has proven.

James went from an
orphanage to foster homes to, he says, battles with other kids -- “I
grew up being called (insults for blacks and Latinos) my whole life”
-- and with “my 350-pound father.” He became, he says, like other
guys. “We didn't know how to be men; the only way we knew was to

He did, often. He
was first arrested at 12, was sent to juvenile hall at 14, but read
Malcolm X and others. “I wanted to be Morris Dees (the civil rights
lawyer). He was a huge hero to me.”

Instead, James
missed a chance to go to Antioch College. In a fight back home, he
was beaten on the head with a baseball bat. After a long recovery –
he still wears hats to cover the injury – James was homeless, then
a member of what he openly calls a “gang.” (Others involved with
“Mayans” and “Sons” have carefully used the word “club.”)
His gang, FSU, battled white-supremacists.

James got a break
when he entered a Sundance screenwriters' lab. He wrote, directed and
scored “Little Birds,” a movie about two teen girls. It drew
praise (but few moviegoers); producer Brian Grazer hired him to write
a movie script ... and then James was arrested and convicted.

The crime –
blackmailing a supremacist – was true, he says. (“I was the only
guilty guy in there.”) But it reflected his past life; in prison,
he wrote Grazer's script, “Lowriders.”

Then he met Sutter,
who saw him as fiction personified. “The characters I like to
create are damaged,” Sutter said. “They live outside the
parameters .... There's a rogue component, an outlaw component.”

Still, Sutter said,
there's more to it than that. “People didn't show up for 'Sons'
because it was about (bleeping) outaws. (They did) because it was
about a (bleeping) family.”

This new family,
like the Sons, happens to ride big bikes, shoot guns and administer
brutal beatings.

-- “Mayans MC,”
10 p.m. Tuesdays, FX

-- 90-minute opener,
Sept. 4, reruns at 11:30 p.m. and 1 a.m; then on Wednesday night at
midnight, Friday at 11:30 p.m.. and more

-- Rated TV-Mature,
with crude language and an extreme torture scene