'Cloak & Dagger': TV Review

Needlessly deliberate like a lot of Marvel shows, but more fun than some.
6/7/2018

Marvel TV's new Freeform drama is in no hurry to get to its eponymous superheroes, but stars Olivia Holt and Aubrey Joseph are solid, and creator Joe Pokaski has an interesting approach to storytelling.

A hallmark of Marvel's push into television has been shows with no particular rush to get viewers to the superhero heart of the narrative.

The heroes in Hulu's Runaways spent the better part of the first season not running away. Daredevil was a guy doing martial arts in his pajamas for most of his inaugural run. The opening installment of The Punisher was really a 13-episode introduction to the franchise's most recognizable villain.

Naysayers might call it glacial storytelling, but fans appreciate Marvel TV's commitment to developing characters and location, even at the expense of plot.

I offer that by way of warning that I've seen the first four episodes of Freeform's Cloak & Dagger, and some really obvious things are still missing — in particular, characters who call themselves "Cloak" or "Dagger." I'd also have a hard time describing the powers possessed by the main characters, their shared goals in using said powers or any single adversary likely to bear the brunt of those powers.

This means that through 40 percent of the first Cloak & Dagger season, a show about superheroes still boasts no superheroes, no mission and no clear bad guy. That's a fairly negative-sounding review buildup for a show that, in these nascent stages, I actually found myself enjoying quite a bit thanks to the solid introductions to the human side of its characters, an often innovative structure, fine use of its New Orleans backdrop and a few moments of real cleverness. If, on some levels, Cloak & Dagger is oddly sluggish, there's a lot happening in these early episodes, some of it fun.

The show was adapted for the small screen by Joe Pokaski, co-creator of WGN's terrific, ill-treated Underground and, perhaps most illuminating for these purposes, a writer on the first season of Netflix's Daredevil.

Tandy Bowen (Olivia Holt) is a teenage grifter and petty criminal, ripping off rich people with her boyfriend, Liam (Carl Lundstedt), and squatting in an abandoned church, avoiding her trailer park-dwelling junkie mother (Andrea Roth). Tyrone Johnson (Aubrey Joseph) is a high school basketball star at a local Catholic school, struggling to live up to the expectations of his demanding parents (Miles Mussenden and Gloria Reuben).

Tandy and Tyrone don't know each other and seem to have nothing in common, but they're about to discover that they're linked through the tragic night Tandy's father died in a car accident and Tyrone's brother was killed by a cop, events joined by an explosion at an offshore rig.

They're also about to discover that they have gifts that are amplified when they get close to each other, but again those gifts are difficult to articulate. This isn't like ABC's Marvel's Inhumans, where it was impossible to describe what the characters could do because the writing and direction were inept when it came to illustrating certain skills. In this case, Pokaski and pilot director Gina Prince-Bythewood have made the decision that viewers are going to be every bit as perplexed as Tandy and Tyrone regarding what's happening to them. So leaving out any knowledge gleaned from the comics or Wikipedia, I'd say that Tandy has the ability to manifest a small weapon of light — a "dagger," if you will — and Tyrone has control over tendrils of darkness that allow him to hide himself or teleport — to "cloak," if you will.

They also have visions of each other, seen through a particular spectrum. Viewers who don't know this comic property will sometimes be able to guess the nature of the powers slightly ahead of the characters, and sometimes the characters will have to spell out what we're seeing as they make sense of it. Oh, and sometimes the special effects just aren't especially impressive, which is OK thus far, but may become a liability eventually.

The goal of the first few episodes is to establish Tandy and Tyrone as normal people and make viewers feel the connectedness of two characters who rarely share the screen. The intercutting between their storylines is aggressive and often intentionally disorienting. There are early stretches where it feels like Prince-Bythewood is sapping energy from Tandy and Tyron's individual stories, before you realize that there's momentum building between the different types of jeopardy the characters face. Subsequent episodes play games with their parallel narratives. One episode reveals how their visions operate, each experiencing something tied to flashbacks from the premiere. I may or may not be doing justice to what Cloak & Dagger is attempting, but I appreciate that it engaged me even as I kept thinking, "Shouldn't more than this be happening?"

I also appreciate efforts to give the show a little texture. The New Orleans setting, changed from the source-material comic, begins a little on the shtick-y side, like when a foot chase just happens to take characters through a moody cemetery of above-ground tombs. It becomes more than that, though, weaving issues of post-Katrina displacement into Tandy's sense of dispossession, giving Tyrone a backstory involving Mardi Gras Indians, and even milking real value from a touristy voodoo tour. The main characters may not be super yet, but they're grounded. It remains to be seen how the voodoo will actually fit into the main story and whether it and the show's Catholic and Christian iconography will be important or just something else to make me think about Pokaski's work on Daredevil. A troubled priest, played by Jaime Zevallos, is a cast regular, so I'm guessing the religious angle will have dramatic significance. 

Until the lead characters interact, it's a bit difficult to fully judge the performances of Holt and Joseph and impossible to know whether they have chemistry. Holt is effectively malleable, shifting from vulnerable kid to savvy predator as her cons require, while Joseph has some well-timed comic beats. They're both quite photogenic, but unlike the stars of Freeform's Siren, I don't get the impression that this was the only quality driving their casting. I should add that Maceo Smedley III and Rachel Ryals do an impressive amount of heavy lifting as young Tyrone and young Tandy in flashbacks.

Some welcome gravitas comes from Roth, Reuben and Mussenden, all getting above-average parent roles by genre standards. I'm still pondering the virtue, if any, in introducing Emma Lahana's transplanted New York detective as a silent character for much of the first episode. It was a choice. I just don't know if it works.

Perhaps my favorite thing about the performances so far is that as important as New Orleans is to the story, nobody does a distractingly bad N'Awlins accent. Would good New Orleans accents be a benefit? Sure, but this is one of those instances in which no accents (or nearly unnoticeable ones) are better than bad accents.

Through its initial four episodes, the real stars of Cloak & Dagger are the structure, editing and overall environment more than any actor. Every role has considerable potential, as does the show's superhero setup. Might I have liked to see more of that potential advanced and realized? Yes. But there's plenty to keep me watching with some enthusiasm.

Cast: Olivia Holt, Aubrey Joseph, Andrea Roth, Gloria Reuben, Miles Mussenden, Carl Lundstedt, Emma Lahana, Jaime Zevallos, J.D. Evermore
Creator: Joe Pokaski
Premiere: Thursday, June 7, at 8 p.m. ET/PT (Freeform)

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