Wednesday, May 21, 2014

'Gang Related,' as in a Distant Relation to a Quality Crime Series

First of all, it is totally and completely unfair to compare Gang Related, the conflicted-cop crime saga arriving at 9 p.m. EST Thursday (May 22, 2014) on FOX, to The Wire, even though both series look at the street drug scene from both sides now (dealers and DEAers) and Ramon Rodriguez is in both shows. The Wire was, by acclamation and near-unanimous vote, one of the finest television series ever made, and Gang Related is...well, not.

This is FOX. It is not HBO. Is that the difference? I don't know. But when it comes to programming, it seems that if it's not animated or doesn't feature unknown kids singing, FOX has a real struggle recognizing the gold from the mold in selecting its prime time shows. (I'm still not totally over them dumping Human Target, Touch and The Chicago Code waaaay too soon.) Maybe that's a reason the network has brought back 24 to live another day: They're celebrating one of the rare occasions when they actually got it right.

RZA and Ramon Rodriguez give it their best shot. (FOX/Justin Stephens)
Even the name of this series can't escape tough comparisons. There was, you may vaguely remember, a 1997 motion picture called Gang Related that was noteworthy as the last film starring the late and hallowed rapper Tupac Shakur. But whatever brilliance Tupac displayed was dulled through being paired with Jim Belushi, and in looking back it's hard to tell which Gang Related is worse. Maybe it's a pick'em.

The requisite rapper in this version is RZA of Wu-Tang Clan, who plays the partner of Rodriguez's character, hotshot LAPD officer Ryan Lopez, in Los Angeles' elite, multi-agency Gang Task Force (GTF). But he implored producers to change his character, Cassius Green, from an LA native to a transplanted New Yorker to stay truer to his own roots. While he has one memorable moment shaking down a prospective suspect (literally), either RZA didn't want to act that hard or plans to claim plausible deniability when it all goes south.

Ryan was taken in as a 10-year-old orphan by one of his neighborhood's most feared and respected figures, Los Angelicos gang kingpin Javier Acosta (Cliff Curtis). Acosta trains his foundling in the ways of street life, encourages him to enter the military, then asks him to enroll in the Police Academy. No dummy he, Acosta raised his own personal mole to infiltrate the LAPD and keep him apprised of all its major cocaine raids and gang intel.
Not even Terry O'Quinn can save this. (Sam Jaffe/FOX)

And Ryan does his job very well – so well that he becomes the golden child of his other father figure, GTF leader Sam Chapel (Terry O'Quinn), who's estranged from his actual child Jessica (Shantel VanSanten), the assistant district attorney. Ryan didn't figure on falling in love with his job and his Task Force partners. So which band of brothers really has his heart and allegiance: la familia, or his thin-blue-line family?

Yes, of course you've seen this storyline before, and done better, but likely not with such heavily Hispanic overtones. In fact, on its plus side, Gang Related may be the brownest drama in prime-time history, reflecting our new American reality. The roll call of actors is filled with such surnames as Rodriguez, Hernandez, Gallegos, Rivera, Moncada, Cruz and Gomez. As gang boss Acosta (played by Curtis, a New Zealand native) menacingly reminds a torture victim, "amigo, brown is the new black."

That on-screen demographic includes Ryan's two half-brothers: Carlos Acosta (Rey Gallegos), a vicious, bloodhappy psychopath, and Daniel (Jay Hernandez), Ryan's best friend since childhood, now a lawyer determined to help la familia go straight. I really liked Curtis's work as the gang godfather, strong, stoic and equal measures compassionate and cutthroat, and O'Quinn has been the Good Acting Seal of Approval for any role he embodies since long before Lost. But O'Quinn doesn't get enough to do here, and the considerable talents of both men are so engulfed by clichéd and predictable dialogue that neither can save this series.

Can viewers root for a central character who's a crooked cop? Especially one who, while otherwise handsome, looks like he got his face caught in a Cuisinart by the second episode? (That's Mistake No. 1.) Can they get past the death of a potentially likeable and charismatic character before Thursday's pilot hour is half over? (I don't think that requires a spoiler alert if I don't tell you who it is; and by the way, that's Mistake No. 2, of many.)

The action scenes are well choreographed but perfunctory, the blood-and-guts scenes grisly but expected (although you will see a stun gun used in an exciting new way). I don't believe anything related to Gang Related will allow the show to last through all 12 of its ordered episodes.
The cast of 'Gang Related.' (FOX/Justin Stephens)
There's a lot on the line here, a lot of quality behind the scenes. The great Brian Grazer is one of the executive producers, and Chris Morgan, the man behind Fast & Furious 6, is the series creator. (You know, I never put any stock in promos that boast, "From the man/team that gave you the blockbuster hit Such-and-Such:" anybody can lay a bomb now and then.) But sadly, all the talent doesn't translate to the screen.

And as history has shown us, FOX has a quicker axe than Lizzie Borden.

On the Big Glowing Box 1-10 channel selector, Gang Related – 4 clicks.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Day Is Ticking Away (Again): '24' Returns – But Why?

Kiefer Sutherland just can't keep his hands off his piece. (Daniel Smith/FOX)
#JackIsBack. Back again.

Jack is back. Tell your friends.

Jack is back, Jack is back, Jack is back, Jack is back. Jack is back.

But can anybody tell us why?

It's generally conceded as television truth that you can't go home in prime time again, at least not as the same character in a resurrection of the same series. Ask almost any successful series actor and he or she will say they're proud to have had the experience, appreciative of what the show did for them and eager to "move on with the next phase of my career." Thank you and good night.

So it would seem like everybody involved with trying to make 24: Live Another Day is taking a bigtime chance of getting their feelings or reputations hurt.

The hugely promoted 12-hour "event series" (it's really Live Another Half Day), which premieres with a two-episode block from 8-10 p.m. EST Monday (May 5, 2014) on FOX, finds America's favorite rogue counterterrorism agent, Jack Bauer, resurfacing in East London, his first appearance since he – and 24 – went off the grid in 2010 after eight seasons.

Kiefer Sutherland, who despite a long and impressive acting resumé may forever be best remembered as the brooding, battered Bauer, surely had no reason to do FOX any favors: his fascinating followup series, Touch, was axed by the network after only one season renewal.

Perhaps FOX wants to relive those giddy days of yesteryear, when the midseason returns of 24 and American Idol would catapult its ratings to the top regardless of how lackluster its new slate of programs had performed. There had been some brief talk of 24 returning as a big-screen feature, but that would have been a stylistic impossibility: the multiple screen images, the "real time" story progression and that ching-chinging clock, all 24 trademarks, couldn't have the same impact as a movie – unless audiences were willing to sit through a 24-hour film.
PLEASE! I'm begging! Tell me why you brought '24' back!

Was there some massive email and letter-writing campaign, or picketers descending on FOX's broadcast bunker, demanding the return of 24 for one last hurrah? Did I miss this? Otherwise, what's the fuss?

In keeping with the show's "real time" commitment, Bauer has been in the shadows for all four years the show has been off the air. His reappearance just happens to coincide with a visit to London by U.S. President James Heller (William Devane), formerly the Secretary of Defense (the TV nation's first black president, Dennis Haysbert, is out), who's in town for a controversial summit meeting. Heller's unscrupulous chief of staff, Mark Boudreau (Tate Donovan), summarizes the backstory and the plotline in one sentence:

"Jack Bauer is a traitor and a psychopath who killed two Russian diplomats and came close to assassinating their president," Boudreau spews. "And now, after all these years, he surfaces in London at the same time as President Heller?" Jack is so misunderstood. Is he here to kill Heller, or rescue him? Either way, he obviously isn't in Merrie Ole England to sample the bangers and mash. (And if that "assassinate the president" plotline sounds familiar, it is: Jack once saved Haysbert's hash, too.)

Boudreau's wrath also may be due in part to the fact that in the intervening years he married (wait for it)...Audrey (Kim Raver), Jack's former crush, who was last seen in a coma that appeared to be life threatening. Wait a minute: you don't suppose that's going to figure into the storyline, do you?

For me, the major takeaway from this new day of 24 is that so many of the principal characters seem so – oh, what's the word I'm looking for?


Even Benjamin Bratt, once the baby-faced heartthrob of Law & Order and the most familiar new face in the cast, has fallen victim to the sands of time. As the headstrong chief of the CIA's London office, Bratt is beginning to take on the facial characteristics of Pacino. That might have been a good thing 30 years ago, but now...
The cast of FOX's "24" Live Another Day" (Greg Williams/FOX)

My wife maintains a heavy crush on Devane, who seems to age with every succeeding closeup. She also says she thinks I'm adorable. Makes you think. Mary Lynn Rajskub, as Jack's loopy but loyal office buddy Chloe O'Brian, looks like she should be opening for Marilyn Manson. And Sutherland, although he does engage in a few very quick, butt-beating, bone-cracking fight scenes early on, doesn't say a single word until 30:43 into the first hour!

Nice work if you can get it. Maybe he was conserving his strength.

24, you may remember, premiered in the fall of 2001, directly in the aftermath of one of the most horrific moments in American history. In fact, its debut was delayed several weeks in an attempt to distance it from 9/11. But to everyone's surprise, rather than damage the show's popularity, the events of the time helped propel the character of Jack Bauer to genuine hero status, protector of our liberty and security, a 21st century Captain America.

We still need a hero, but Jack Bauer's time may have run its course. (Tick...tock...tick...tock...) The pulse of this pulse-pounding action saga doesn't pound as rapidly as it once did. Jack's return may be an enjoyable welcome back for diehard 24 fans, but it's an uncomfortable anachronism for the rest of us. There's no good reason for this 24 to Live Another (Half) Day.

My 1-10 ranking: SIX (6) clicks