The job of any television series creator is to establish a world, its players, and its rules in the pilot episode, so that they can break those rules and break down those characters in subsequent ones. Television is a character’s medium, and therefore a writer’s medium, because of the amount of time one gets to spend with each individual story. For Chris Morgan, creator of Gang Related, the story he set up for the thirteen-episode run on FOX was one of a man at a crossroads, choosing between what society sees as good or bad, but with deep ties to both.
“Gang Related is the story of a guy who’s deciding in the core of his being who he truly is. So the season’s journey [was] to put him through this gauntlet that makes him discover which side he’s [really] on,” Morgan tells SSN. “In every hero there’s a dark side, but in every villain there’s something heroic. And our show is about loyalty and family and the choices we make every day to figure out who we are and who we want to be to the world.”
At the center of Gang Related is Ryan Lopez (Ramon Rodriguez), a young man raised by the patriarch of the Acosta gang. After spending time in the Army, he joins the LAPD and becomes a mole, and season one sees Ryan struggling to be on both sides of the law. While he feeds intel to his adoptive father Javier (Cliff Curtis), and covers up Acosta family crimes, he finds himself pulled by his father figure boss (Terry O’Quinn) and a romantic relationship with assistant D.A. Jessica (Shantel VanSanten). All of these ties complicate Ryan’s goal, but the goal of the show, as Morgan shares it, is to have Ryan permanently pick a side.
“Really digging into those characters is where the joy of TV is for me.” -Chris Morgan
“Over the course of growing up Ryan’s done so many things he looks back on now, and look, there’s a reason the season starts where it does. We catch him in that moment when for the first time he’s really questioning ‘what am I doing?’ He’s done all of this stuff for Javier; he’s been going forward on love for the family; and now he’s found this other family,” Morgan says. “He does crave redemption desperately. In his heart he wishes he could make up for those things … it comes from his character.”
To organically get Ryan to this point—Morgan knows that the audience will only follow “characters through a journey if you are genuine about it”—he must be tested and learn some hard truths about those he’s been protecting. Though many other shows may have used Ryan’s arrest of Javier as a season finale cliffhanger, Morgan felt strongly that pivotal moments had to come sooner.
“To leave an open question, to leave investigation and story threads that we could check into later, that doesn’t do what we wanted to do which was hit this certain point in his arc,” Morgan says. “Although turning on Javier and having [him] arrested seems like a definitive answer, there’s a way more definitive one which happens in the finale.”
Something similar could be said of Jessica’s death, which Morgan calls a “turning point” for Ryan. “[Jessica’s death] was the one event that he could no longer cover over, that he couldn’t justify … It was the one event that laid out there completely naked, and he was like, ‘this is not who I am,’” Morgan says. The actions taken against Jessica simply for being close to Ryan forces him to reconsider which side is truly protecting him.
“We had to divvy up stories between the gang and the cop side so you could understand why he’s having a hard time choosing. On the surface it might look like an easy choice, but the truth of the matter is … there’s some dark stuff right around Ryan that he wasn’t even aware of yet,” Morgan says. “When you’re playing a mole on both sides, it’s very dangerous. He’s making a choice, and now can he live with it? Can it sustain? What are the repercussions? His world can be turned upside down very quickly.”
To deliver the strongest first season possible instead of holding back story for a potential second season is a smart decision for any show runner. After all, the stronger the first season, the better the chances are for renewal. But the ability to surprise and delight an audience is key, too.
“With TV, people show up not just for the spectacle, that’s not necessarily what they’re looking for. What they’re looking for is really great, interesting character work, to explore characters fully. So to me that’s the great lesson—you certainly have exciting action and things like that, but it is equally exciting to have an incredibly intense interrogation room scene where visually not much is going on but on a character level it has that same gut-wrenching intensity. Really digging into those characters is where the joy of TV is for me,” Morgan says.
Gang Related airs its season finale on August 14 on FOX.