At first glance, a TV show about teen superheroes airing on Freeform (the network formerly known as ABC Family) seems like it might be in line with “The Runaways” on Hulu: a glossy take on a beloved comic with some bonus salacious parent drama, as per teen soap standards. “Cloak & Dagger,” however, feels more akin to the Netflix genre of Marvel shows in all its grittiness — but it has an immediate leg up thanks to judicious editing, careful characterization, and downright surreal storytelling.
Pairing writer Joe Pokaski (“Heroes,” “Underground”) with director Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love & Basketball”), “Cloak & Dagger” plunges into its own darkness immediately. The origin story of “Cloak,” aka Tyrone (Aubrey Joseph) and “Dagger,” aka Tandy (Olivia Holt) begins when they’re both just kids, and suffer huge tragedies almost simultaneously.
Tyrone sees his older brother — who was trying to get him away from police when caught in a petty crime misunderstanding — shot to death by a twitchy cop and fall into a lake, which Tyrone quickly dives into, still hoping to save him. Tandy sees her father — an executive arguing with his nefarious oil company — die when an unexpected rig explosion causes him to lose control of his car and plunge straight off a bridge into the lake below. Both feel an overwhelming shock as something emanates from the rig through the lake and their tiny bodies. Both wash up on the same beach, startled by each other before running their separate ways. Both won’t understand what it all means until much later.
When the series picks up, Tandy and Tyrone are teenagers living polar opposite lives. Tyrone is a promising student and basketball player at a prestigious private Catholic school. Tandy is a con artist hustling rich kids for money, since she and her mother lost everything when her father’s company pinned the rig explosion on him and stripped them of all they had. Both are haunted by what they lost, and even though they hate to admit it, terrified of a future they can’t control. When they randomly meet at a high school party — one Tyrone is invited to and Tandy crashes in hopes of pickpocketing drunk kids — they trigger a dormant power in each other that leaves them both freaked out and reeling.
“Cloak & Dagger” can be as blunt as a punch to the face when it hammers home the differences between Tandy and Tyrone’s lives. A few scenes — especially in the pilot — are so paint-by-numbers that you can see where they’re going the second they start. Still, “blunt” is exactly in line with what superhero origin stories tend to be, and “Cloak & Dagger” nonetheless does a few things to set itself apart from the dozens we’ve seen before.
The Prince-Bythewood directed pilot sets a visibly sinister tone, following Tyrone and Tandy in their respective corners of New Orleans underneath the same overcast sky. Tandy’s world is a whiplash-inducing combination of poverty (as seen at her mother’s house and the church she secretly sleeps in at night) and the white yuppie class she routinely preys on as a means to both survival and revenge. Tyrone’s is narrow, suffocating him and his righteous anger at a world that sees him as a threat no matter what he does, until he finds a way to acknowledge his hurt and open up.
Holt’s Tandy is bitter and defiant, raging like a teen Jessica Jones. Joseph’s Tyrone is tender, earnest even when he finally lets himself be truly angry. Both settle into their roles after a couple of episodes, especially as Tyrone and Tandy inch closer to the truths of who they really are.
Some of the best material comes in the third episode as Tyrone explores parts of New Orleans he never took seriously before, like the tourist-swamped voodoo shops whose message takes on a whole new meaning as he tries to figure out what’s happening inside his own body. That episode also submerges both Tyrone and Tandy in a surreal dreamscape that never feels like a gimmick because the fears and hopes it reveals are so deeply rooted in their characters.
And in a gutsy move for weekly teen television — which lives and dies by an audience’s rapidly narrowing attention span — “Cloak & Dagger” doesn’t rush itself. This isn’t to say that the show takes the Netflix route of dragging out a pilot’s worth of material across an entire season; the pilot itself is plenty eventful on its own. It’s more that the show is careful to flesh Tyrone and Tandy out individually, to make sure neither’s storyline depends on the other — unlike, as it turns out, the confusing new powers they only discover once they meet again.
The moments when Tandy and Tyrone do share the screen in the first episodes are relatively few and far between, but “Cloak & Dagger” makes them count. By the time they come back together, years after that fateful night in the lake, the show has given us a deeper window into the people they both became so that their meeting and the truth of their powers have even more impact. “Cloak & Dagger” takes its stories and itself seriously, and is hoping you do the same.
TV Review: “Cloak & Dagger”
Drama series (10 episodes, four watched for review): Freeform, Thurs. June 7, 8 p.m.