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.

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