“Outlaw Empires” and “The Devils Ride” take a walk on the dark side

It’s almost becoming a genre unto itself. Hunter S. Thompson famously befriended and wrote about the lives of ’60s motorcycle gang members in his now-classic Hell’s Angels. Bill Buford ran with England’s football hooligans in the early ’80s and described the game-day mob mentality that brought pandemonium to Britain’s streets and elsewhere in his book Among the Thugs. Now along come two series devoted to exploring the modern-day outlaw culture, both from Discovery Channel: The Devils Ride, premiering May 8 at 10pm ET/PT and Kurt Sutter’s Outlaw Empires, premiering May 14 at 10pm ET/PT.

Both series aim to get inside America’s subcultures to explore the lifestyles and motivations of the individuals who have chosen to live on or over the edge of everyday society. Kurt Sutter, creator of FX’s hit series Sons of Anarchy, has the broader scope of the two series in Kurt Sutter’s Outlaw Empires, but that should surprise anybody, really. “I’ve made a career writing about fictitious anti-heroes,” Sutter explains. “To create these worlds, I’ve spent a lot of time with active members on both sides of the law. And if I had to pick the most interesting of the two, the choice is obvious — we love the guys in black.”

For Sutter, it’s important that viewers know that he’s not trying to exploit his subjects as examples of evil. “This isn’t about making a judgment call on who’s good or bad,” he insists. “As a storyteller, I’m drawn to these personal, intimate accounts of why these men made the choices they made, and what it’s like to be a member of an outlaw organization.”

The first episode of Outlaw Empires goes right to the heart of it all. “Crips” profiles the notorious L.A. gang, from their beginnings as a group of young boys maintaining their claim to their turf and building up their pride to their eventual growth and corruption. Subsequent episodes will include “Outlaw Bikers” (of course), “Irish Mob,” “Nuestra Familia” — about the group of Latin gang members forged within the California prison system that legendarily employs ultraviolence as a means of control — “Italian Mafia” and “Aryan Brotherhood.”

The Devils Ride, on the other hand, is more akin to Thompson’s mission with the Hell’s Angels, but instead going deep inside the world of San Diego’s Laffing Devils, meeting its members and seeing what a modern motorcycle club is all about. For Gipsy, the club’s president and an Iraq War veteran, the Laffing Devils has been a balm for the emotional scars left over from his combat days. It’s his responsibility as head of the group to maintain a balance between the club’s ever-joining ranks and the wishes of its older members to keep things as they’ve always been. It’s a tough job, and one that the club’s vice president, Billy the Kid, wouldn’t mind having.

Some of the action in The Devils Ride would be surprisingly mundane if it weren’t for the fact that it’s part of the biker lifestyle. In one episode, the Laffing Devils cope with the potential loss of their clubhouse, an auto body shop owned by member Hawkster, when the police put pressure on them to find a new place to congregate. But moving takes money, obviously, so to finance the move, Gipsy finds the Devils security work guarding a liquor store in a tough neighborhood, and the new responsibility doesn’t go down well with everyone in the club.

Both series take viewers into worlds that most would rather not enter, offering a titillating bit of the dark side of America’s subcultures. Whether the creators of both series will end up being beaten and kicked as a result of their investigations the way Thompson and Buford were remains to be seen.

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