Sep 23, 2016

Channel Surfing: Lethal Weapon - "Pilot"

Scene from Lethal Weapon
Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
In the late 90's, writer Shane Black penned a screenplay that redefined the crime genre. With the skill of actors Mel Gibson and Danny Glover at his disposal, Lethal Weapon was a crime film that defined the buddy cop genre. Unlike its subsequent sequels and knock-offs, the tone of the film was dark and did plenty to humanize Gibson's Martin Riggs: a mentally depressed veteran who found thrills in walking into danger without caution. Glover's Roger Murtaugh was an aging cop who would later say the line "I'm getting too old for this s**t," and you could totally believe him despite the hilarity. There was a darkness underneath the comedy and action. Most of all, the buddy cop genre benefited more from dynamic than story, and the series that made it to 2016's Fall TV season is a far cry from where things started.
For starters, Lethal Weapon's status has been in some ways usurped as the great police action franchise. TV has seen the rise of several crime procedural series, including heavyweights Law & Order, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and NCIS. The idea of a crime show has lost its muster with each new series, and the promise of a Lethal Weapon series would either seem foreign to its source material, or seem like a product from a bygone era. The answer is somewhere in the middle, though largely thanks to its need to be a swift and more conventional procedural than any of Black's films ever were.
There is one thankless task to be found in introducing Murtaugh (Damon Wayans) and Riggs (Clayne Crawford) to a new audience. The beats mostly play the same from the existential dread of Murtaugh to the manic eyes of Riggs. The only issue is that neither actor is necessarily adept to make the characters their own. They are fine, but there's so little beyond name recognition that makes this show viable. One could argue that it could be named something else (Deadly Weapon?) and be perceived as being a little better. Much like the complaints around Ghostbusters this past summer, the issue is more that it's original enough in the story department to make you wonder why it's a Lethal Weapon TV series. Wayans has usually been funny and Crawford does have charisma, but they're more conventional TV cops than the realistic, fleshed out heroes of Black's universe. While budget limits the high concept action that Richard Donner brought to the films, the chemistry should overpower it, and it doesn't.
When judged for itself, Lethal Weapon as a series seems fine. In fact, most crime shows are fine because of how disposable they actually are. There's only so many ways to shoot a crook. Thankfully, there's some delightful dark humor to justify Riggs' character, but not enough to make him convincing in other ways. Maybe there will be a clearer story that turns this series from "Crime of the Week" fodder to an actual series with stakes and characters. I would like to believe that, but I still think that there's an appeal absent in making a Lethal Weapon series when shows like True Detective have taken the buddy cop formula to new levels. At best, the series will enjoy a life of witty cop banter and adventures. It will never actually be as great or groundbreaking as the film.
It may be difficult to admit that this is a crass way of looking at a new series. After all, MASH (movie) and M*A*S*H* (TV series) were different enough to make similar complaints. Donald Sutherland was no Alan Alda, and vice versa. It could just be that the show has the convenience of time on its side to prove itself. However, the show also had wit and character that extended the fairly authentic premise of military doctors. Even in the late 80's, Lethal Weapon was more of an extension of an existing genre that was way over bloated on TV alone. The other issue is that the central cast for the TV series isn't particularly memorable, even with Wayans being a well established actor with quite an impressive resume (though there is a bigger issue of buying him as an old and haggard man akin to Glover's portrayal; as Wayans' version looks at least 15 years younger).
The show is fine and will continue to be fine. It will in no way be revolutionary or remembered in 10 years beyond a footnote to the superior films. This is only a problem if you think it's a problem. It will likely settle into a nice lifespan in rerun circuits in 20 years that one can currently find on cheap public networks. It's enjoyable enough that to watch it isn't to waste too much of your time. However, its essential nature seems questionable when considering the amount of quality programming in your Fall TV season. Watch at your own risk, but just know that you're likely to have trouble not comparing it to the movies, and that is its only major problem.

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