TV: 'Gang Related' on Fox watchable despite flaws
The new Fox action drama "Gang Related" has enough going for it to make you overlook its faults, at least for a while, which isn’t bad for a broadcast TV series.
The show, created by Chris Morgan of "The Fast and the Furious" film franchise, centers on a Latino gang family, struggling to maintain its hold on the drug trade and other illegal activities in Los Angeles, and on the special Gang Task Force set up to stop them.
The bad guys have their good qualities, and the good guys have their bad, and smack dab in the middle is GTF member Ryan Lopez (Ramon Rodriquez, "Battle Los Angeles"), who was virtually adopted by the gang when he was a boy. Now he’s working undercover for them, but in many ways, is more of a good guy than the GTF head, Sam Chapel (Terry O’Quinn, "666 Park Ave.").
The pilot episode, airing tonight, is less than promising, but once you get used to the clichés, the loudly telegraphed plot developments and the unrelentingly phony look of the set, the show becomes watchable in subsequent episodes, thanks to a few of the key performances and some well directed action scenes.
Lopez feeds key information to the gang, headed by Javier Acosta (Cliff Curtis, "Body of Proof"), who is motivated by love of family above all else. Ever since Javier saved Lopez from being beaten up as a boy, the Acosta family has included Lopez. Ryan’s boyhood friend Dante (Jay Hernandez, "Nashville") has always remained part of his family, but not the family business. As a squeaky clean adult, he is opening a new bank in the community and intends to run it on the straight and narrow, but then again, Michael Corleone started out intending to stay on the straight and narrow in "The Godfather," from which "Gang Related" borrows too liberally.
Even if we buy that Lopez is as dedicated to eradicating crime as he is to protecting the Acosta family, the plot points in the first two episodes are pretty ridiculous. His partner gets killed by Javier’s trigger-happy son Carlos (Reynaldo Gallegos, "Sons of Anarchy"), but Lopez needs to protect the family so he makes up a story which is later disproved. Assistant DA Jessica Shaw (Shantel VanSanten, "You and I") believes him at first, but eventually has to agree he’s made the whole thing up. Lopez then makes up another story, that he shot his partner, and is let off virtually scot-free.
Another thing that probably wouldn’t happen: Jessica Shaw is the daughter of Sam Chapel.
Once we learn Jessica is Sam’s daughter, we know she and Ryan will hook up. We can pretty much count on even more divided-loyalty plot lines down the clichi-strewn road.
The first few episodes also focus on competition between various gangs for control of a new, highly potent form of cocaine called Fishscale, and on Javier’s determination to avenge the shooting of Carlos by members of the Lords, an African American gang. True, they did the shooting, but who put them up to it? We know, but Javier doesn’t, and that sparks an all out gang war.
The action sequences are generally compelling and overall, the show is watchable because Rodriquez is solid as Ryan Lopez. If it takes a good actor to make a lousy script credible, Rodriquez is a great actor. Equally fine are RZA ("Californication") as Lopez’s new partner Cassius, Hernandez and VanSanten. Curtis does ok with the whole Latino godfather bit, but is hobbled by the inconsistencies of the screenplay.
O’Quinn was terrific in "Lost," but here, he’s merely lost, reciting his lines as Sam Chapel as if he were narrating an educational film. He deserved better after the debacle of "666 Park Ave."
Let’s talk about the other issue here, though, and that is that while Fox should be commended for airing a show about Latinos with a largely Latino cast, does the show really have to be about Latino gangs? Yes, the Acostas are humanized by their respect for family and Latino culture, just as the women on Lifetime’s "Devious Maids" are somewhat rescued from being stereotyped as maids and housekeepers by being so much smarter than their employers. Still, these are stereotypes. Throw in the Latino gardener and you’d have a trifecta.
Morgan has strategically modulated the morality scale here to muddy the stereotyping issue (and, for good measure, includes an Asian American GTF member and Russian mobsters). It is to his credit that he at least attempts to make the characters three-dimensional (even if few of them are credible), but with Latinos identified as the fastest growing minority population in the U.S., TV still lags dismally in representing them on screen. Yes, shows like "Gang Related" are a start, but it’s not enough just to portray Latinos as stereotypes and to cast Latinos in leading roles.
There are about 53 million Hispanics in the United States right now, representing 17 percent of the total population. Judging by television and many feature films, the U.S. must have an over-abundance of Latino maids, housekeepers and gang members.