There was once a time not so long ago when teen television was pretty footloose and fancy free. Even a show like Pretty Little Liars, which was fueled by an endless stream of murder and bloody intrigue, boiled down to love triangles, a hilariously kitschy killer board game, and just a little bit of optimism. If you don’t believe that, just look at the fairly hopeful series finale, which, like any good rom-com, revolved around a wedding. Yet, just a few months after Freeform’s flagship series said goodbye, teenage TV has gone pitch black.
Riverdale went from a show about a bunch of spunky kids untangling an extremely morbid mystery to a drama involving the depths of organized crime, PTSD, and gay conversation “therapy,” complete with serious undertones of fascism. 13 Reasons Why found a way to make the already tragic show even more dire, adding in a lengthy, brutal sodomy scene and revealing a campus-wide culture of enabling sexual assault at Liberty High School for season 2. And, the final nail in the coffin of a formerly sunny genre like high school shows arrived with the Thursday night premiere of Freeform’s brand new summer adventure, Cloak & Dagger.
Cloak & Dagger might be one of the best new superhero series on television, but, it’s also proof that young adult-friendly shows officially live squarely in the darkness these days.
There is one scene from the Marvel-flavored series’ premiere, “First Light,” that is so hard-hitting and visceral it feels as though it simply wouldn’t have been allowed to exist even five years ago when the recently ended Gossip Girl was still the pinnacle of YA television. The moment in question appears in Cloak’s cold open, which unravels the childhood origin story of its main characters, Tyrone Johnson (played as a teen by Aubrey Joseph) and Tandy Bowen (played as a teen by Disney Channel alum Olivia Holt). During the flashback, young Tyrone (Maceo Smedley) and his older brother Billy (Marqus Clae) are on the run from the police after a well-meaning Tyrone stole a radio system out of a rich white man’s car. The Johnson siblings end up on the run from authorities after Billy tries to return the pilfered technology on his little brother’s behalf.
The chase ends with a police officer shooting unarmed Billy, who is Black, twice in the torso, killing him immediately. As a reminder of the “Hands up, don’t shoot” chant from the Ferguson protests, Billy’s hands are high in the air, proving he isn't an imminent threat to the officer who murders him. Most shows would have filmed the shooting by zooming in on Billy’s shocked face as the bullets pierce his body. Behind-the-scenes figures like the producers and directing team would likely assume that kind of bloodless treatment would be the more “humane” or “respectful” choice. Yet, Cloak & Dagger went for the wide shot, forcing fans to really consider just how disturbing and upsetting police violence actually is by putting it directly and explicitly on their television screen.
Cloak & Dagger isn’t pulling any punches in the name of easily digestible television. While that kind of choice may alienate viewers, it’s also a powerful tool. After all, audiences who don’t want to think about the Tough Topics can avoid series like the now-canceled Seven Seconds and Shots Fired, or even, Black-ish, which are all pretty up front about the fact they tackle subjects like race in America and how law enforcement plays into that. It’s easy to assume a teen-driven superhero show on the home of light fare like Baby Daddy or Young & Hungry isn’t going to stumble into those kinds of thorny areas, so it will be “safe” to watch. Yet, here Cloak & Dagger is, confronting you with the cold, hard truth.
It seems the possibility of starting difficult, dark conversations is a goal for the comic book show’s cast. “[It's important] to take topics that have been hidden for so long and not talked and make them a conversation,” star Olivia Holt told Refinery29 during a New York City interview ahead of Cloak & Dagger’s premiere. “To make it a big deal and bring it to people’s attention and make people aware of what’s happening in the world.”
This same outlook is what makes Tandy’s final scene in “First Light” so harrowing and impactful. The first half of Cloak & Dagger’s two-hour series premiere ends with Holt’s Tandy, who grows up to become a con woman, in the midst of a sexual assault by a wealthy young man named Rick (Mike Donovan). Rick is Tandy’s most recent mark, and he wants violent retribution for his humiliation. The visual of Rick pinning Tandy against a chainlink fence while undoing his belt — again, a painfully graphic shot the series chooses to show rather than imply — is a gut punch of an image that refuses to let viewers off the hook. The scene practically says, “This is what really happens in the world, and you need to look at it, so you can be truly angry about it.”
Then, Dagger gives Rick, who tells his prey to “just give up,” the ultimate punishment before he is able to rape Tandy. In a moment of defiance, she uses her powers and stabs him with a tiny dagger made of light. All of a sudden, the Freeform series' title makes literal sense. As the episode ends, it’s unclear if Tandy actually killed her attacker or merely injured him. “[We’re reminding] the audience that it does happen,” Holt said of “complicated” moment, which reveals Rick's fate in the following installment. “Watching Tandy go through it is something that’s pretty brutal to watch, but, again, it’s the reality and we’re telling something that is authentic.”
While it is difficult to come to terms with just how dark a show like Cloak & Dagger is, along with all the other teen shows like it, this kind of somber honesty reflects the reality of being a young person right now. Gen Z, and their even younger counterparts, are coming of age as school shootings feel like a near-constant threat, horror stories of #MeToo flood the news, and the political landscape becomes more grim every day. Being a teen is dark. Of course their entertainment is, too.
Looking for more theories, recaps, and insider info on all things TV? Join our Facebook group, Binge Club. The community is a space for you to share articles, discuss last night’s episode of your favorite show, or ask questions! Join here.