Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Cloak & Dagger's showrunner on Marvel, mergers, and the logic of a Runaways crossover

Illustration for article titled Cloak & Dagger's showrunner on Marvel, mergers, and the logic of a Runaways crossover
Photo: Alfonso Bresciani (Freeform)

The first season of Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger eventually figured out that it should take a page from its title and keep its main characters together, not apart. After a slow start, the comic-book adaptation rallied, depicting with deft insight Tandy Bowen (Olivia Holt) and Tyrone Johnson (Aubrey Bell), two teens who find themselves strangely connected after a childhood tragedy imbued them with powers that manifest later in life. Her light-emitting abilities and his teleportation based in darkness make for the ideal pair, and the show soon discovered a talent for the unusual, with one-off episodes of dream sequences, time loops, and a single conversation that lifted it out of conventional formatting and into something stranger and better.


On the eve of the season two premiere on Freeform, we caught up with showrunner Joe Pokaski to discuss the lessons learned from season one, how they introduce some superpowered antagonists to our heroes, and the struggle to get people who prefer to wait until a complete season appears on streaming services to join the week-to-week viewing premieres.

The A.V. Club: It’s sort of interesting to see the second life shows can get now that there’s this staggered window of time, where there’s the people who see it when it first airs and then there’s that new audience that finds it when it hits streaming and they just binge.

Joe Pokaski: It’s so interesting, ’cause it’s hard not to be conscious of it. And particularly on our show; I always think about what a different experience it is week-to-week versus someone who gets to watch it all together. I think the most interesting people to hear from are the ones that do both of them. But it’s been nice. I mean, we’re on a network that not everyone knows where it is. Some people happen to catch it on Hulu and some people happen to catch a word of mouth, but we’ve gotten some really, really encouraging numbers on Hulu streaming. So I’m curious as to what it means for viewers showing up on Thursday.

AVC: A lot of people just have that mindset of, “Oh, well I’m just going to wait until it’s all available so I can watch it in one weekend” or whatever. Is it hard sometimes when you want to say, “Yeah, but we’re crafting this week-to-week adventure that we want you to come along for”?

JP: It is. But honestly, I think in this day and age you’re a little better off. I think if you have a good enough product, people watch you week to week. Like nobody waits on Game of Thrones. Everyone watches it every week, you know what I mean? So I think it’s just on us to make a better product where you really want to know what’s happening. And you can’t wait that long. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with the bar being raised for quality in that sense.

AVC: In the normal learning curve of launching a new series, what did the first season teach you about making the show, in terms of what surprised you by really working, or things that you didn’t necessarily expect?

JP: I mean, I think honestly one of the biggest—I don’t want to say surprises because that’s not fair—but one of the things that constantly impressed me week to week was how even though our actors are young, how much they can handle what we threw at them. You know, Aubrey and Olivia for sure, Emma to some degree too, it just made it easier as the writers and I started breaking episodes for season two. You know, one of the new episodes, episode six, we have Olivia living three different versions of her life. And there was never a question of, “Can she pull this off? Can she find the differentiation and do these subtle differences?” We kind of knew from our experience with season one that she could take anything and run with it and make it better. So I think probably the biggest thing is just understanding what a great team we had in front of the camera and behind the camera and allowing ourselves to be more aggressive like that.

AVC: So much of the fun in season one does come from how you guys were willing to do these conceptual standalone episodes—these big dream visions, or time loops, and the like. The show seems to be following that Buffy The Vampire Slayer model of, “Yes, there’s a heavily serialized season-long narrative, but each episode can still tell a story on its own, too.” How important was it to you to not have that, “We’re making a 10-hour movie” mindset that’s so pervasive in the streaming era?

JP: Oh, that’s boring. You know what I mean? I think it feeds into what we were just talking about it, as far as the hour to hour. It’s one of those things I always get frustrated when anyone thinks they need A or B; When you make television, it’s like, we should be able to do both, right? Me and the writers are almost crazy about how we want each hour to be able to be...I always say to the writers, “I want you guys to want to write the best episode of the season.” And everyone kind of goes for it, and particularly this year I think we were able to do it even more. I think you mentioned—obviously episode four when they were talking in the church or episode seven last year with the time loop—I think we probably have two or three times as many of those episodes this year and we got really into, what’s the concept of this episode? How does it stand on its own? How does it serve as part of the overall narrative? And I think it worked out pretty well.

AVC: It seems like at the end of last season, with the introduction of Mayhem, you guys already had a good sense of where you wanted to go with season two. Were there specific things that changed after you had time to reflect and see the response from others to the first season and so on?

JP: Yeah, absolutely. I think we wanted to—in very rough, Joseph-Campbell-for-beginners terms—we wanted this first season to be a call to action, and then the second season, now that you’ve decided to be a hero, really a definition of what kind of hero are you wanting to be? And that’s what drove us in season two.


But then there were a bunch of factors. We loved the idea of Mayhem as this touchstone, as a flash point between Tandy and Tyrone. It was very interesting to us: As you’re deciding to become a hero, someone else is just going around and being able to—without guilt—hurting people even tangentially involved in these horrible crimes. And how do they feel about it? And the most interesting drama we found was in Tandy and Tyrone’s difference of opinion as to whether or not Mayhem was right or wrong. I think we had a great sense of, we wanted the next level for Tandy and Tyrone, we knew we weren’t gonna be able to do a slow burn as we were in season one, but I think we had a decent blueprint. But then, you know, building a house, you always discover different cabinets and find different things as you get into each room.

AVC: Is it a different kind of pressure in season two? Because as you pointed out, you aren’t able to do the same sort of slow burn, because Tandy and Tyrone have gotten to this point where they both embrace their powers and the idea of working together.


JP: Yeah. I mean honestly, there’s a little less busywork to be done. There’s a little less setting the table, because you’ve had 10 episodes to do that. But I think for me in particular, I take season twos way too seriously. Because every favorite...you know, you look at Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s second season; you look at West Wing season two; you look at Alias season two. There were these beautifully crafted seasons that like...season ones are great and they determine whether or not you get a season two. But I think season two determines what your series is going to be more than season one, in a weird way. So I think we had a little pressure on ourselves for that, but also the knowledge that we have 10 episodes behind us. We knew what we could do and we could lean into our strengths.

AVC: You’ve been pretty open about one of the challenges in making a Marvel show being how fractured the ownership is. What was it like trying to make a season of a Marvel TV series in the middle of this massive corporate shakeup where so many rights are now going under new ownership and everything seems to be changing in terms of what the options are for going forward?


JP: I mean, one of the benefits of Cloak & Dagger is that we’re low enough profile so nobody’s necessarily fighting over our shit. Watch, the minute I say that, they’ll change. [Laughs.] Look, there’s all sorts of corporate craziness with billions of dollars at stake, but I also think at the end of the day, it’s just a bunch of nerds who work for different companies. There’s a lot of fun to be had there. So, we’ve been very lucky because Aubrey and Olivia got to meet with Chadwick Bozeman, they got to meet with Brie Larson. They did little pieces. So we’ve tied into the universal a little bit in that sense. I’m still talking to Josh [Schwartz] everyday about a Runaways crossover. So, I mean, this [merger] might not be better for the world, but the good news is Spiderman’s in the Avengers. And everyone so far has been really nice to Tandy and Tyrone, which I always take personally in a good way, because Cloak and Dagger in the comics are the people who can show up in any comic book and be kind of welcomed. So it’s fun that at least in the TV and movie world, so far, we got that same kind of welcome.

AVC: Well, and the TV and film MCU worlds maintain some degree of separation, save for maybe SHIELD. Do you feel a freer opportunity to play in a more connected TV world post-Disney acquisition?


JP: I think so. I mean, some of the shows are tonally different. It’s going to date me, but I remember watching The Practice and Ally Mcbeal crossover when I was a kid, and that they somehow pulled it off. So I think where it makes sense, it does make sense to do a crossover, and it’s something that comic books did so well. I even think the DC TV shows—I don’t watch them, but I love the idea that they have this big crossover event every year. And it seems to me like if you’re watching one of the shows, you kind of get a little more interested in the other shows. I think it’s good for everybody. I think it’s good storytelling. I’m hoping that we get to cross over a little more and we’re working on that. It seems to make sense and it seems to be in the spirit of Marvel comics.

AVC: It would seem like the Cloak & Dagger/Runaways crossover is just waiting to happen.

JP: Right? I mean, they show up in like the second or third book of Runaways. It’s literally written in the Bible.


AVC: So much of the first season was about two people in a normal world suddenly getting powers and then having to respond to that very normal world with these abilities. What was the appeal for you in season two of starting to introduce antagonists and others who might have some abilities of their own?

JP: If season one was about, “There’s one person that understands me,” it’s now about Tandy and Tyrone against the world. And when you do that it’s about bringing in some people that can hold their own against Tandy and Ty. And I think bringing in Mayhem, bringing in some other forces I’m not allowed to talk about for another couple of weeks, it allows you to—hopefully we don’t get too crazy and too supernatural—but it allows you to extend the metaphor. we’re extending their powers a little, and it’s always been kind of the rule that we can only extend their powers when there’s an emotional reason to do it. So if we want Tandy to have a light bomb, she has to be more angry. If we want Tyrone to open up a portal to someplace else, he has to be so afraid that his flight-or-fight mechanism works. I think hopefully if we do our job right by increasing the supernatural, we increase the metaphoric capacity as well.


AVC: So many of the battles they fight involve these very real, very human problems, which looks to continue in season two with stories about human trafficking, among other things. Is there a difficulty in writing such true-life issues for people with power? Because the typical storytelling route would be having superheroes fighting equally fantastical villains where you can just make metaphors or allegories for real-world stuff. But with you guys, It’s always so tied to something very real and tangible.

JP: Yeah. That’s the corner of the universe we’ve carved out as a television show. There’s so much superhero television and film that I like the fact that we’re the ones that are taking on the real-world villains, which, you know, they feel so real and so crazy now that somebody should take it on. And I think if we do our jobs right...You know, Tandy and Tyrone, since 1982, have always been the two people that kind of look out for the lost children of the world—at least the lost kids of New York City way back when—and so it felt like it was their mantle to not only take on some of the supernatural metaphors, but shine a light on some of the crappy things people are doing in our own world. With a hope to maybe make the world a better place in the tiniest way.


Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.