The title of Fox's "Gang Related" has a double meaning.
The central focus of the new drama premiering Thursday is LAPD Det. Ryan Lopez (Ramon Rodriguez), a rising star in the department's elite gang task force. But he's hiding something.
Unknown to his law enforcement colleagues, Lopez is also a spy for Javier Acosta (Cliff Curtis), the leader of the ruthless Los Angelicos street gang. As an orphaned boy, Lopez was taken in by Acosta, who became his guardian and mentor.
Lopez's conflicted loyalties between his two "families" generate much of the narrative tension for the show, which has received a heavy promotional push from Fox. Said executive producer Chris Morgan: "The theme of the show is about who you are inside, who do you want to be and how you determine that."
But even before the show's launch, the drama has been running into trouble from community members and activists over what they regard as the series' overreliance on negative ethnic stereotypes and the depiction of East Los Angeles as a war zone.
"This show is very well done, and it's got all the bells and whistles," said Bel Hernandez, CEO of Latin Heat Media, which publishes a Latino-focused entertainment magazine and website. "But when it comes to Latinos, why do shows always have to be about the gangs? We have hospitals, offices and lawyers in our community. Latinos are always the zero and never the hero. I believe Latinos are tired of seeing this kind of portrayal on television."
During a recent screening at Homeboy Industries, a downtown Los Angeles agency that provides former gang members with free health and legal services and job training, there was some grumbling over glamorizing gang life. Fox donated $10,000 to the agency, but producers who spoke to the audience found themselves on the defensive during a brief question and answer session.
In the series, almost all the Latino characters are tied to criminal activity in some respect. And the program overlooks the real-life effect of gangs in the neighborhood in favor of a formulaic plot line, say activists who note that there are few other dramas on prime-time television to counterbalance such a narrow vision of Latinos.
Meanwhile, the police department's gang task force is multicultural, but its leader, Sam Chapel (Terry O'Quinn of "Lost"), and many other authority figures are white. Most of the show's creative team including Morgan and other key executive producers are white as well (Allen Hughes, who directed the pilot and is listed as an executive producer, is African American).
But the show's executive producers hope audiences will give the series time to unfold and flesh out its characters.
"Gangs are horrible, but I think we have a fair picture of the good and bad," said Scott Rosenbaum. "We show the family and how they interact, like many Latino families that have a strong bond. We ask the question, 'Why are they doing it if they know it's wrong?'"
In one especially unnerving scene from the pilot, Acosta, the gang leader, tortures a rival who is suspended by chains. Acosta moves toward his helpless foe with a meat cleaver and says, "Some people say my people resemble cockroaches — how we reproduce, our resilience. But what is true is if you step on us, break our backs, we keep crawling. If you kill us, another comes to take his place. Look around you, amigo. Brown is the new black."
Morgan, also a screenwriter who wrote several installments of the "Fast & Furious" franchise, said he understood the concerns of those who might have some issues with "Gang Related."
"I totally get it," he said. "Gangs are definitely a blight on the community. Our goal is definitely not to glorify, but to understand why the gang is there. That is the central dilemma, It's not about a gang's rise to power, but about this one gang trying to stop and end their criminal ways."
Viewers should approach "Gang Related" like "Game of Thrones," Morgan said, with black, Korean, Latino and Eastern European gangs seeking to become the most powerful in Los Angeles.
Though family is at the heart of "Gang Related," Morgan vowed that there would be consequences for those characters who do not do the right thing.
"We will never hit a glorifying note," he said. "No one will come at this and say, 'I want to join a gang.'"
When: 9 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-14-DLV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and violence)