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Why the ‘Lethal Weapon’ Reboot Is a Hit

The power of the buddy cop is real

(Fox/Ringer illustration)
(Fox/Ringer illustration)

Twenty minutes into a recent episode of Fox’s new Lethal Weapon reboot, hilariously mismatched LAPD detectives Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh take in the panoramic view from a shady pharmaceutical company’s high-rise offices and gaze down at what you’d have to call Chekhov’s Swimming Pool. It’s shaped like a pornographic Tetris piece and seems wildly impractical as an instrument of leisure. Good luck not bonking your head trying to do laps in this thing.

(Fox)
(Fox)

Riggs and Murtaugh are there to ask sassy questions about an experimental drug taken by a psychotic, milk-chugging former Navy SEAL who looks a lot like Diplo, but a Google search for “Diplo Lethal Weapon” dredges up only this, so don’t worry, it’s not Diplo. There is no car chase in this episode — there is at least one car chase in every other episode thus far — but as consolation you get a lengthy sniper/IED chess match in a lush and otherwise abandoned city park, lush and abandoned parks being prevalent in Los Angeles. (Also prevalent in Los Angeles: snipers. Every character on this show is a sniper, including the extras in bikinis.) As further consolation, eventually, this happens.

(Fox)
(Fox)

Sure. Not to spoil anything, but the gentleman on the right also tosses up an explosive vest in midair, where it is shot and harmlessly (?!) detonated by the gentleman on the left. Regretfully, neither gentleman has a sufficiently hilarious quip once they safely hit the pool, but earlier in the episode, someone else says, with regard to someone else, “He can’t come to the phone — he’s a little dead right now.” Get your buddy-cop jollies where you can find them.

This show ain’t a bad place to find them. Seven episodes in, this Wednesday-night trifle is one of the fall TV season’s biggest new hits, right up there with Kiefer Sutherland’s Surprise President and that show where Mandy Moore projectile-cries at everyone. In fact, it’s second only to Empire overall as Fox’s biggest hit with viewers age 50 and under, which is bizarre, given that it’s a remake of a moribund movie franchise launched in 1987 and abandoned in ’98. Much of Lethal Weapon’s target audience, you would think, is too young for this shit.

The craven-remake business is booming: MacGyver and The Exorcist likewise resurfaced as new TV shows this fall, plus we’ve gotten rebooted Point Break, RoboCop, Total Recall, Poltergeist, and, uh, Ghostbusters movies in the past few years, to mercifully name just a few. The craven-remake business is also, crucially, never not collapsing: None of the above endeavors qualify as hits, and quite a few rank as outright failures, commercially and otherwise. To microwave a stale piece of intellectual property is the easy way out that is also, somehow, the incredibly hard way out.

So what’s different here? There’s no outsize star power unless you’re big into Damon Wayans (understandable) or Jordana Brewster (more understandable). It’s likely the timeless simplicity of the buddy-cop thing itself, which relies on no higher concept nor hinges on recreating some other era. Chemistry trumps star power, even. Crazy young unknown guy + put-upon old familiar guy + car chases + hot chicks + copious weaponry, advanced and otherwise. It’s even harder to screw up than usual. The appeal is primal, elemental. There are buddy-cop tales in the Bible, probably.

Moreover, the larger catalog of badass action-movie tropes is just as timeless, and this show expertly revels in them even if it’s inexpert in every other way, preferring candy-coated gleam to modern TV’s often literally pitch-black grit. It’s CSI without the science and tech, Criminal Minds without the torture-porn sleaze, NCIS without the N and the S and frankly most of the I. One car chase, at least, per non-fake-Diplo-starring episode, guaranteed. It’s the sort of show where a mid-tier bad guy attempts a getaway in a propane truck. Where someone says, “Well, found our potheads,” and then the camera cuts to two severed heads. Where Jason Derulo cameos as a boxer. Where an enfeebled police captain growls stuff like, “You’re off the case!,” except the enfeebled police captain is played by this guy:

(Fox)
(Fox)

Ted Chaough from Mad Men! Shouting stuff like, “Send everyone: SWAT, hostage negotiators, everyone”! Get out of town! No absurdist stunt on this show — seriously, a propane truck — is less believable than the notion of Peggy Olson’s married chump ex-paramour as the grizzled police captain. It would honestly be less distracting if it were literally any other actor, wearing a clown suit.

The casting is otherwise lovely, just lovely. Taking over for Danny Glover, your old (?!) pal Damon Wayans plays Murtaugh, bloated and desultory and celebrating his 50th birthday in the pilot, which is designed to make anyone old enough to have an emotional connection to the original Lethal Weapon feel older still. The much tougher and more thankless Mel Gibson spot goes to the far less famous Clayne Crawford, who plays Riggs as a denim-flaunting, Texas-transplant drawler with Problem Hair. He is forced to do a lot of moping, wracked by myriad Instagram-filter flashbacks to his dead wife, who gets T-boned by a semi whilst driving herself, while in labor, to the hospital. Myriad flashbacks to the T-boning, also. It’s unsightly.

(Fox)
(Fox)

Your heroes have a winsome-enough rapport, goofy and awkward, their patter larded with groaners (“Ever feel like you made the wrong career choice?” “Yeah, the day I met you”) but delivered with just enough of a frivolous zing. Wayans especially manages to puncture what little self-seriousness this show indulges, subtly heavy-petting a couch as he and Crawford sit for a forced police-psychologist interview (Jordana Brewster has very little to do other than roll her eyes and surf), and attacking his lines at odd angles with that familiar and buoyant falsetto: “WHOOOO is that guy?”

Crawford is forced to do the Sad Tough Guy thing a lot, weeping in his cruddy beach trailer and putting a bullet in the television, though the directors, through various jarring music-video camera tricks, do most of the emoting for him. (Matt Miller is your top-billed producer; the first two episodes are helmed by the estimable and gaudy McG, he of Drew Barrymore’s early-2000s Charlie’s Angels reboot, so he’s now done the “beloved ’80s movie franchise to TV” thing in both directions. Those Angels movies were both successes, too, come to think of it! Is McG the craven-remake secret sauce?) This Mourning Bro motif is the show’s one fount of self-seriousness, and it’s worth briefly revisiting the source material here, to see which elements of this beloved piece of IP are being pilfered, and which aren’t.

(Warner Bros.)
(Warner Bros.)
(Warner Bros.)
(Warner Bros.)

Yeah. As you might recall, the original Lethal Weapon features Twin Peaks pilot levels of performative grieving: Three different men cry, Gibson at some length and with an unnerving level of intensity. His chemistry with Glover is irreplaceable, volatile and slapstick and discomfitingly charismatic, but this movie’s brutal third-act turn toward total, incongruous darkness — Murtaugh’s teenage daughter kidnapped, both our heroes tortured, and so forth — blessedly goes unreplicated. The TV version, in this case, usually reaches for the zanier, fluffier stuff: You’ve gotta think Lethal Weapon 2’s toilet bomb will show up eventually, and if we’re really lucky, they’ll reprise the first movie’s scene where Gary Busey, in a very stylish cable-knit sweater, helicopter-snipes a dude and his eggnog.

(Warner Bros.)
(Warner Bros.)
(Warner Bros.)
(Warner Bros.)

Awesome. Look. If you have any interest in this show, just skip to the fourth episode, which, despite literally taking its title from the line “There goes the neighborhood,” is genuinely striking and unexpected, in that it allows Wayans to do some legit, gravitas-infused Acting. It starts out with Murtaugh and his teenage son in a barber shop, grappling with their embarrassed upward mobility. (Everyone and every building in this show has jumped three tax brackets from the movies, from Murtaugh’s house to the police station to even Riggs’s cruddy trailer.) There are Black Lives Matter undertones without the whole thing getting too gratuitous. Our buddy cops deal with visceral internal tension — one punches the other — and also shower brawl with a naked home-invasion-crew-mastermind weightlifter dude to the strains of an admittedly terrible remake of Young MC’s “Bust a Move.” Oh, well. You can’t win ’em all, or even most of ’em. But this one you do.

Still, prepare to otherwise settle for good-not-great. All the female characters get hosed, as usual; playing Murtaugh’s wife, Keesha Sharp, whose career stretches all the way back to Pootie Tang, gets to be a high-powered lawyer now, but she’s still likewise stuck rolling her eyes a lot and serving as the butt of various blow-job jokes. (She nonetheless fares better than Darlene Love in that role in the original, who spends basically the whole movie in a bathrobe having her cooking impugned.) Lethal Weapon 2016 isn’t trying to be progressive, either. But try to embrace the absurdity, as when we meet an oil-billionaire-S&M-super-creep played by this guy:

(Fox)
(Fox)

Henry Francis from Mad Men! Get out of town! Fine, you and Ted Chaough can stay. (Just kidding: Henry gets blown up within minutes.) Lethal Weapon’s best path forward is to avoid all the pitch-black pitfalls and keep the car chases coming and incongruously cast every single Mad Men character actor as an oily supervillain. Get your prestige fix elsewhere. This is pretty good TV that isn’t trying to be great or, even worse, trying to be gritty. A craven remake that mostly gets it right by cravenly trying to remake a casual-violence mood, not a specific idea from a specific, bygone era. Then as now, sometimes all you wanna do is hit the pool.