How this disappointing misfire jacks moves from other, better cop dramas is, well, a crime.
Near the end of Gang Related’s premiere episode (airing tonight at 9 p.m. EST on Fox), Los Angeles Detective Ryan Lopez (Ramon Rodriguez, previously seen as Shia Labeouf’s wisecracking buddy in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen), is in way over his head. By day and night, he’s a hotshot member of the city’s Gang Task Force, the crew caught between two rival LA gangs, the all-black Long Beach Lords and the Mexican outfit known as the Los Angelicos. Secretly, though, Ryan is the honorary son of Los Angelicos leader Javier Acosta (Cliff Curtis), a bond first formed when a fatherless, teenage Ryan got into a scrap with Javier’s biological son and caught the criminal mastermind’s eye. Throughout Gang Related’s pilot, Ryan’s dual life gets extra complicated (a dead partner, double-crosses, broken loyalties), and he voices his frustrations to Javier behind closed doors. Ryan, a hardened street kid turned hardened detective, actually says this to Javier: “This is dangerous tightrope I’m walking here!” Because people actually speak like that, especially L.A. gang members turned law enforcement representatives.
That line of amateurish dialogue is one of many such clunkers heard in Gang Related, a rote hybrid of films like Training Day, End of Watch, and The Departed and better TV shows like The Shield that refashions Los Angeles into Cliché City. The pilot was written by series creator Chris Morgan, the screenwriter behind four of the Fast & Furious sequels (The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, Fast & Furious, Fast Five, and Fast Six), and those credits are seen and felt all over Gang Related. Two of Ryan’s colleagues, detectives Tae Kim (Sung Kang) and Vee Hicks (Inbar Levi) form a tough-guy Asian/fiery, sexy Latina partnership that’s basically Han and Gisele 2.0. Like the Fast & Furious movies, Gang Related also hammers home its obvious desire for street cred by energizing various scenes with popular rap tunes (i.e., Kendrick Lamar's "Swimming Pools (Drank)," French Montana’s “Ain’t Worried About Nothin’”).
And not unlike the Fast & Furious franchise, Gang Related, even in its worst moments, is never boring—there’s a vibrancy to the first two episodes that elicits partial enjoyment. It’s also tough not to pleasantly laugh while listening to co-star RZA, playing Ryan’s new partner, discuss the mechanics of their latest investigation: a “fish scale” cocaine ring coming up from Mexico. The meta-ness of that scene leaves you anticipating a Ghostface Killah cameo as one of the Long Beach Lords. Or at least a routine “gangbangers being gangbangers” moment scored by the Ghost/Raekwon track “Kilo.”
There’s no Pretty Toney to alleviate Gang Related’s predominant sense of familiarity, though, just the lightweight Ramon Rodriguez and a supporting cast of solid characters actors—including Terry O’Quinn (Lost, Hawaii Five-O) and Curtis (Blow, Live Free or Die Hard)—sinking beneath the writing’s triteness. Rodriguez, the show’s leading-man anchor, suffers from the same problems Aaron Taylor-Johnson is currently being called out for in Godzilla. He’s altogether wooden, lacking the charisma needed to play against a hamming-it-up RZA and the gravitas to go blow for dramatic blow with Cliff Curtis. In a more commanding actor’s control, Gang Related’s hokey dialogue might have been saved from its flatness, but Rodriguez’s unimposing presence exposes Chris Morgan’s inefficiencies. When Ryan, overlooking the city from a hilltop, says, “This used to be so beautiful—now all I see is a battle map,” he comes across like a disenchanted little kid looking at his once-beloved Stratego board.
Morgan similarly treats Gang Related like a dartboard, one adorned by images from every Los Angeles-set urban crime movie and show. They occasionally hit the bulls-eye, particularly by having RZA crooning to Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” on the cop car’s radio and asking Ryan, “Man, why don’t they make music like this anymore?” (RZA, Gang Related’s meta king.) Inbar Levi, it’s worth noting, is another bright spot, doing what Ramon Rodriguez can’t do with silly dialogue. While trying to get an Asian witness to cooperate and zapping his testicles with a Taser, Levi’s characters tells the guy she’s doing it “Gangnam style,” and, surprisingly, it’s kind of funny. Mostly, though, the many ways Chris Morgan mimics superior iterations of the same “good street cop who’s also a bad street guy” motif handcuffs Gang Related from ever rising above mediocrity.