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The New ‘Lethal Weapon’ TV Show Is Kind of Great — but Not for the Reasons You Think

The ’80s classic is now on Fox. Here are all the ’80s action-movie tropes we hope it’ll use.

Brian Taylor illustration
Brian Taylor illustration

We talk about TV all the time, but we hardly talk about all the TV. This week, we’re looking at the shows, people, and networks that we know people love — that we love — but typically fall outside of the critical hivemind. This is TV Airing in Plain Sight.

Three new TV shows based on a movie or a TV show from the ’80s start soon. There’s MacGyver, which airs Friday on CBS. There’s The Exorcist, which also airs Friday (on Fox). And then there’s Lethal Weapon, which airs Wednesday on Fox. Of the three, Lethal Weapon is the most interesting, though mostly for reasons that have to do with the parts of the show that exist beyond its network TV borders.

To be clear: Lethal Weapon is not a bad show. In fact, it’s a good show and fun show that is probably better than it should be. It’s a nearly straight-line reworking of the original Lethal Weapon movie; two cops, one who is crazy and lovable (Riggs, played by Clayne Crawford) and another who is old and lovable (Murtaugh, played by Damon Wayans), are partnered and have to solve crimes together in Los Angeles. There are real moments of emotion packed into it, the most poignant of which being when Riggs, who gets sent into a death spiral by a personal tragedy early in the first episode, is allowed to roam around the darkness of his trauma. But that’s not why the show is interesting. It’s not interesting in a classic way. It’s interesting in a meta way.

What I mean is, think on it like this: The Lethal Weapon movie franchise stretched from 1987 to 1998. During that time period, the action-movie genre evolved from the silly, over-the-top mechanisms of the best early films (Commando, RoboCop, etc.) and began sprinting toward the grisly, self-aware mechanisms that dominate the best action movies now (John Wick, Mad Max: Fury Road, etc.). And during its own tenure, Lethal Weapon always allowed itself to lean all the way into the action-movie tropes of the action-movie universe. I’m hoping the TV show might do the same thing (which would make the show interesting without adding any of the pressure of actually having to be good). And, having watched the pilot, I can tell you that it’s not a baseless hope, either.

I’ll give you an example: One of the most enjoyable and time-tested action-movie tropes is Remarkable Accuracy, wherein someone is exceptional at shooting a gun or shooting an arrow or throwing a ninja star or throwing a knife or handling any sort of weapon that has to travel from one place to another to be effective.

The most iconic display of that trope in the Lethal Weapon series happens in the first Lethal Weapon movie, when Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Murtaugh (Danny Glover) have an impromptu shooting contest at a firing range. Murtaugh sets up his target, sends it down the line some 25 or so yards, then fires a single shot at it. When he clicks the button to bring the target back to him, we see that it has a hole right square in the middle of the target’s face. Riggs congratulates him, then sends the same target back down the line, this time 50 or so yards away. He draws his gun, fires seven quick shots at the target, then clicks the button to bring the target back. When it arrives, we see that he’s used Murtaugh’s bullet hole as the nose of a smiley face that he’s shot into the target. Murtaugh is flummoxed. It’s Remarkable Accuracy.

In the opening scene of the TV version of Lethal Weapon, Riggs is in the middle of a chase down a dirt road in El Paso, Texas, accompanied by his partner Jenkins (he doesn’t team up with Murtaugh until later). Riggs receives a phone call from his wife as he’s driving. She tells him that she’s going into labor, that he needs to head to the hospital, that he’s going to be a father, and that she loves him. Riggs slams on the brakes, spins the truck around so that the tailgate is now facing the car that’s driving away, and then gets out. He hops into the bed of truck and starts to open the tool-storage box. Jenkins yells at him that he can’t just let the bad guy get away, to which Riggs, who is now holding a large sniper rifle he’s removed from the tool-storage box, responds, “Who said anything about letting them get away? [Open] the [tailgate].” Jenkins, confused, lets the tailgate down. Riggs lies down and takes aim at the car, which is driving away at maybe 60–70 mph. Jenkins continues fussing in disappointment, saying that the car is 800 yards out, that it’s an impossible shot. “Riggs, there ain’t but three shooters in the whole damn world can make that shot and you ain’t one of ’em.” Riggs takes a breath, then says, “Hey, Jenkins.” Jenkins says, “Yeah?” Riggs says, “Shut up.” Then he shoots a single shot that hits the car in the exact right spot, causing the car to spin out and then flip a bunch of times. It’s Remarkable Accuracy.

But here’s the thing: It’s more than just that. It’s a very clear homage to a moment in the first Lethal Weapon in which Riggs talks about a time he shot a guy from 1,000 yards out while he was in the military. Even the dialogue is nearly identical. (“When I was 19, I did a guy in Laos from 1,000 yards out. It was a rifle shot in high wind. Maybe eight or even 10 guys in the world could have made that shot.”)

So I’m wondering if the TV show version of Lethal Weapon is going to exist in the same manner that the movies did. Because if so — if they’re going to allow it to unironically use action-movie tropes — then the general storylines of the show don’t even really matter. The question won’t be whether or not the show is technically any good. The question becomes: How many tropes will it allow itself to use, and how thoroughly?

Some tropes to keep watch for:

There’s the thing where a guy stares mournfully out of a window while talking about something. He’s usually reminiscing about a time when things were better, or easier. And it’s almost always brought on by something having gone wrong. He’ll usually say something like, “How did things get so fucked up?” I wonder if that’s going to happen on the Lethal Weapon TV show.

There’s the thing where one of the heroes tears a piece of his shirt off to make a thing, like a tourniquet or maybe the wick of a Molotov cocktail. I wonder if that’s going to happen on the Lethal Weapon TV show.

There’s the thing where somebody dies from suffocation or drowning. Stretching out a death is always dramatic. The instances come when the person who’s dying is tangled up in a pool tarp (like what happened to that one bad guy in Lethal Weapon) or pinned down underwater because a rock is on his or her leg or whatever (like what happened to Riggs in Lethal Weapon 4). I wonder if that’s going to happen on the Lethal Weapon TV show.

There’s the thing where the heroes don’t wait for the bomb squad, followed by the thing where they argue about whether or not the red wire should be cut or the blue wire should be cut (like what happened in Lethal Weapon 2). I wonder if that’s going to happen on the Lethal Weapon TV show.

There’s the thing where a second-tier bad guy ends up in a conversation with the first-tier bad guy, and the first-tier bad guy does something that shows exactly how much crazier he is than the second-tier bad guy (like what happened in Lethal Weapon when Gary Busey let his boss burn him with a lighter because his boss wanted to show some second-tier bad guys how loyal Busey was to him). I wonder if that’s going to happen on the Lethal Weapon TV show.

There’s the thing where someone says:

  • “What the hell have we gotten ourselves into?” Usually said after it becomes clear that what was thought to be a simple murder is actually something much, much larger.
  • “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Whenever someone’s got a bad feeling about this.
  • “I can’t quit now. I’m in too deep.” Whenever someone’s in too deep.
  • “I haven’t even started yet.” This one happens after someone goes on a long rant or tirade and the other person asks, “Are you done yet?”
  • “It’s personal now.” Whenever things have become personal. The best “It’s personal now” moments happen after someone’s loved one has been killed, or maybe a pet. Saying “it’s personal now” is such a clutch move.
  • “You got a plan?” The best plan of any Lethal Weapon movie was in Lethal Weapon 2 in which Murtaugh asked Riggs if he had a plan for handling all of the henchmen that were holed up in a secure house. Riggs said, “Yeah. If you drive around the front of the house, you wait for my signal, and then just go in and shoot those fuckers.”
  • “Get this guy outta here!” Usually it’s a police detective saying this to an officer after the detective has tried interrogating the suspect and the suspect made the detective frustrated.
  • “That’s it! You’re off the case!” Usually a captain is telling a detective or officer this. The detective or officer then pursues the case on his own. (This one actually also happens in the TV series, which made me especially happy. Riggs and Murtaugh get their very first case reassigned. Then they go on and solve it anyway later that night after a heartfelt talk.) (The captain yelling at his officers is my personal favorite trope. I like when he yells about “how far up my ass the mayor is on the account of the mess you two have made.”)
  • “Is that all you got?” Usually after someone takes a real pounding.
  • “Don’t you die on me.” I love this one. The best version is when it’s one cop holding his partner after he’s been shot. Riggs and Murtaugh were able to not only employ action-movie tropes successfully, but were often able to codify them. Their version of the “don’t you die on me scene” at the end of Lethal Weapon 2 remains the benchmark version of it for buddy cop movies.
  • “You just don’t get it, do you?” Whenever someone just doesn’t get it.
  • “This thing is gonna blow!” When a thing is gonna blow!
  • “You don’t get to die until I tell say it’s OK for you to die.” It’s terrifying when a villain says it and endearing when a hero says it.

I wonder if those things are going to be said on the Lethal Weapon TV show.

There’s the thing where the bad guys are foreign. I wonder if that’s going to happen on the Lethal Weapon TV show.

There are two versions of the thing where the hero describes a gunshot as “just a flesh wound.” There’s the one where some wacky loudmouth gets nicked by a bullet in the shoulder or the thigh and he acts like he’s going to die and the hero very annoyedly says, “Get up. It’s just a flesh wound,” then the wacky loudmouth realizes he’s fine. And there’s the one where it’s the hero who’s been shot and it’s very clearly a critical blow like in the neck or some shit, but he still describes it as “just a flesh wound” because that’s just the kind of guy he is. I wonder if that’s going to happen on the Lethal Weapon TV show.

There’s the thing where someone is explaining something technical like how money laundering works or why it’s impossible to hack into a security system and the main hero says something like, “Say it in English!” I wonder if that’s going to happen on the Lethal Weapon TV show.

There’s the post-death one-liner, which is probably the most enjoyable action-movie trope and definitely the most famous one. (Somewhat surprisingly, if we gather up all of the one-liners in all of the Lethal Weapon movies, Riggs finishes off of the podium. Third place goes to Jack Travis, one of the villains in Lethal Weapon 3. He has his muscle take a guy and bury him in wet concrete at a construction site while he’s still alive, then says, “Now we’ve got a relationship we can build on.” Second place goes to Murtaugh. A bad guy shoots Riggs in the back in Lethal Weapon 2 and then holds up a badge at Murtaugh and tells him he has diplomatic immunity, to which Murtaugh responds by shooting him in the forehead and then saying, “It’s just been revoked!” And first place goes to Murtaugh, too. In Lethal Weapon 2, he kills two henchmen with a nailgun, gathers himself, realizes what’s just happened, then declares, “Nailed ’em both.”) I wonder if those things are going to be said on the Lethal Weapon TV show.

There’s the thing where a hero with a haunted past sits alone in a graveyard talking to the tombstone of someone he used to love. I wonder if that’s going to happen on the Lethal Weapon TV show.

There’s the thing where the hero decides at the last minute that he’s not actually going to murder the bad guy that he was planning to murder. He yells real loud while holding a gun to the bad guy’s head or a knife to his throat or something, and then he just drops it. He gets up, walks away, and then in the background, we see the bad guy rising to life to try one last time to kill the hero, at which point the hero will has no choice but to kill the bad guy. I wonder if that’s going to happen on the Lethal Weapon TV show.

There’s the thing where an innocuous moment from early in the movie proves to be prophetic or life-saving. I wonder if that’s going to happen on the Lethal Weapon TV show.

Just past midway point of the first episode of Lethal Weapon, Riggs ends up having dinner at Murtaugh’s house with Murtaugh and his family. It’s another of the more common action-movie tropes: the unhinged half of a partnership tossed into an especially stable and threat-less environment. (It happens multiple times over the course of the Lethal Weapon franchise, so it makes sense that they do it in the TV show, too.) Riggs is sitting there, saying inappropriate things that make the kids laugh and also makes Murtaugh flustered. Then Murtaugh’s wife asks Riggs whether or not he’s married. Riggs, after taking a moment, tells her “ … not anymore,” and Murtaugh jokes, “Let me guess: You had an affair with your gun?” Riggs tells the table that she passed away, and things turn very serious. A baby cries in the background through a monitor, Murtaugh leaves to go sit with her, and then Riggs follows a couple of seconds later. They talk a bit about his wife’s death, and there you go. Murtaugh, who had previously decided a partnership between him and Riggs was not going to work, changes his mind. Ten minutes later Murtaugh drives a truck through the wall of a warehouse and shoots a bunch of bad guys.

There are so many things that happened in Lethal Weapon that can happen on the Lethal Weapon TV show. I wonder if they’re going to.