There’s a moment early in the second episode of Gang Related that gets at the much better version of the show that could have been. Protagonist Ryan Lopez (Ramon Rodriguez) gets out of the shower to find both of his cellphones buzzing on his table. His official phone rings with a call from his boss over at the Gang Task Force, Sam Chapel (Terry O’Quinn). His secret phone carries a signal from his father figure, whom he’s truly loyal to: the gang leader Javier Acosta (Cliff Curtis). The two vibrate next to each other for a moment, Ryan trying to decide which to answer. It’s a neat little image that encapsulates a version of the show that exists less and less the further along it goes.
In the eyes of creator Chris Morgan (screenwriter for much of the Fast & Furious franchise), Ryan’s dilemma is less that the character feels genuinely torn between two worlds—Rodriguez isn’t good enough at the kind of soulful frustration the character would require to allow for that—but because the two men he’s caught between are both versions of himself he might like to be one day. As Chapel, O’Quinn mostly sleepwalks, but there’s enough of the gruff authority he brings to every part to show why Ryan seems occasionally swayed from feeding information to Acosta—which is his purported reason for joining the LAPD. And as Acosta, Curtis creates the show’s most impeccably nuanced character—a family man prone to violence at the drop of a hat. Someone who can go from loving to terrifying in a matter of seconds; someone who seems genuinely shaken by the life he’s built for himself. It’s also nice to see a show where only one regular—O’Quinn—is a white dude, where the writers seem at least interested in the lives of other American subcultures. Yet as the show’s first four episodes rattle on, the nuance starts to leech out of the program, and it turns into just another cop show with a twist.
In addition to Morgan, the series boasts Scott Rosenbaum as an executive producer. Rosenbaum has been involved in numerous good TV shows, but the credit that matters most here are his many seasons on FX’s The Shield, the broadcast network version of which Gang Related would desperately like to be. There are hints, particularly in the first two episodes, that the show might be able to manage this trick. Sure, the supporting characters are largely generic cop-show types, and Ryan’s struggle often feels paint-by-numbers. But the material inside the Acosta family—particularly pertaining to Javier and his two sons—is legitimately fascinating, and it’s detailed enough to suggest the show’s writers will have the chops to bring something genuinely moving and complicated to network television, provided they get enough time to do so.
Gang Related, however, can never escape the fact that it’s filtering The Shield’s darker energy through the lens of a network procedural. Sequences out on the streets of Los Angeles have the surface-level grit of a cable series, but they rarely engage with it beyond confusing that grit with actual complexity. The series wants to be a grimly realistic look at the true costs of being out on the mean streets of L.A., but it can never resist the swooping, high-tech gleam of shows like NCIS or the slam-bang beats of the modern action movie. The series’ directors follow the lead of pilot director Allen Hughes, capturing the central headquarters of the Gang Task Force as a sleek, stationary predator that is lying in wait to unleash its agents onto the criminal underworld. Veering between the sorts of scenes that Curtis plays with the actors who play his sons (or even the scenes he plays with Rodriguez) and the big action-movie moments (like when a land mine makes an appearance in a car chase in the pilot) creates a show that feels rarely aware of what it wants to be.
In terms of central characters, Ryan is no Vic Mackey, either. It would be difficult to compete with Michael Chiklis’ performance (one of the best ever seen on TV) or the careful work Rosenbaum and others did building that character out over seven seasons. But Ryan rarely feels genuinely conflicted about his central dilemma. He finds it easy enough to be part of Acosta’s organization when he’s with Javier, and he finds it easy enough to be a cop when he’s on the job. He’s rarely placed in positions where he has to squirm his way out of a tight situation, and nobody seems to notice when he meets with Acosta in places where one might imagine the police—or somebody—trying to keep eyes on him. The show nods toward this with Shield veteran Jay Karnes as a man conducting an investigation into oddities surrounding an incident featuring Ryan, but this pops up too rarely to truly seem like it matters.
All of this might be okay if the show truly embraced its nuance. In the early going, there are hints that Chapel and the other cops (who include a witty and warm RZA) are just as willing to break the law in order to get what they want as any gang leader, just as we’re allowed to see Acosta’s moments of warmth. But this leaves the show, too. By episode four, the good guys are good, and the bad guys are bad, even if Curtis is still providing moments of soul. Gang Related ultimately confuses being grim with being sophisticated, and it too rarely stops to think about what it’s trying to say beyond, “Man, being a dirty cop sure would be tough!”