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How ‘Mayans’ Has Been Influenced by the Show’s Creator Elgin James

How ‘Mayans’ Has Been Influenced by the Show’s Creator Elgin James

It’s a small, quiet prison scene in a show known for big, noisy ones. And it packs the emotional power we expect from Mayans M.C.

On one side of the glass is Alicia (Denise G. Sanchez), who hasn’t been in jail before; on the other is EZ (JD Pardo), who has.

“Anything you try to keep – hope – will just get destroyed” in prison, he tells her. “So kill it first . . .. Shut it all down.”

Her question: “When I get out, how do I turn it back on?”

That’s a question for Elgin James (top, right), who’s been on both sides of the glass. He’s the co-creator and producer of Mayans, which airs at 10 p.m. ET, Tuesdays on FX, then goes to Hulu. He’s in charge of a much-praised drama; he’s also spent a year in prison.

“You see people at their worst,” James said by phone. “Obviously, there are moments of brotherhood, too. But sometimes, you have to turn it off.”

And afterward? At worst, he said, you can be “incapable of joy . . .. How do you turn it on again?”

That fits into his world of contrasts: Mayans has fierce action, yet surprising subtlety; it ripples with machismo yet has a growing female power.

“Women are as tough as sh*t,” James said. “Men get to be babies their whole lives.” He remembers that at home: “My mother was like 100 pounds; my dad was 350 pounds, but he would have tantrums.”

Both Mayans and its predecessor (Sons of Anarchy) are rooted in a macho world – all-male motorcycle clubs selling drugs and weapons, often amid brawls and shoot-outs.

Sons was created by Kurt Sutter, whose wife (Katey Sagal) played the wife of the club leader. It ran seven seasons, drawing some of cable’s highest Nielsen ratings; it also received a Golden Globe for Sagal and a Television Critics Association nomination as best drama.

When it ended, FX wanted a spin-off about the Latino bikers who sometimes collided with the Sons. Sutter created it with James, who has mixed ethnicity and experience in the shows’ tough world.

Raised in foster homes, he was arrested at 12 and sent to juvenile hall at 14. He made it into college at 17 but was soon severely beaten in a gang fight. James became homeless, then turned to punk rock and a group called FSU (in polite circles, Friends Stand United), which sometimes confronted drug-dealers and white supremacists.

He eventually pulled out of that, landed a spot in the Sundance Screenwriters lab (2009), and wrote and directed Little Birds (2011). Some critics hated it, some liked it, and the National Board of Review called it one of the year’s ten best independent films.

James also landed a deal to write the movie Lowriders, except that everything went on hold. In the interim, he’d been arrested for a crime committed in 2005; convicted of extortion, he was sentenced in 2011. “I was supposed to be redeeming myself, and then this.”

James doesn’t deny the crime (extorting a white supremacist) and jokes that he was the only prisoner who actually was guilty. After prison, he finished the script; Lowriders finally came out in 2016.

Two years later, Mayans debuted, with a protagonist (EZ) a lot like James – a college-bound guy whose life detoured into prison. And two years after that, FX fired Sutter, putting James solely in charge. (It was always Sutter’s plan, James said, for him to take over in the third season.)

Mayans has always had an expanded scope, he said. “Even in the first two seasons, there were more women in the writers’ room than men.”

One strong scene – a border transfer – had five tough-talking characters, all of them female. Even the show’s gentlest figure (Gaby, EZ’s sometimes-girlfriend, played by Sulem Calderon) brings depth. “She just has this light about her,” James said. “But she’s been through darker stuff than all the guys can imagine.” 

Life is like that sometimes. Darkness leads to light; dark twists lead to great television.


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