There's a running gag in the second episode of FOX's Lethal Weapon series where the cops who work with LAPD detectives Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh can't decide on a joint nickname for them. Are they peaches and cream? Crockett and Tubbs? Starsky and Hutch? (The problem with that one is that both men insist on being Starsky.)
The joke within the joke, of course, is that Riggs and Murtaugh themselves are as iconic a pairing as any of these potential nicknames. But the Riggs and Murtaugh in question are the ones played by Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in a series of '80s and '90s movies, and not the cuddlier newer versions played by Clayne Crawford and Damon Wayans in the FOX series, which debuts Wednesday night at 8.
The Gibson/Glover take on the partnership – particularly in the first two Lethal Weapon films – is as beloved and archetypal as it gets for buddy cop pairings, with Riggs as the unstable wild card (and eponymous lethal weapon) and Murtaugh as the straight arrow who will gladly tell you he's getting too old for this s–t. That duo have been imitated so often, in movies and on TV, in the 29 years since they were introduced, that an official TV series version seems redundant without a very specific and vivid take on the partners. And the FOX series unfortunately seems content to take its cues from the goofier, lighter later Lethal Weapon sequels, which already played like bad imitations of the original(*).
(*) In the first movie, Martin Riggs is a man equally damaged by the death of his wife and all the killing he did while serving in Vietnam. In the second, he's still damaged, but entirely about his wife (Vietnam is forgotten in all the sequels). In the third and fourth, he's a goofy guy who occasionally looks unhinged for 30 seconds.
Produced by Matt Miller (Forever, Human Target), with a pilot directed by McG (who previously co-created the very Lethal Weapon-y Fastlane for FOX in the early '00s), gives us a Riggs who is tormented by the recent death of his pregnant wife, and there are occasional references to his service overseas, but the balance is tilted more towards the comedy. Crawford, who's been a revelation in recent seasons of Sundance's great Rectify (a show that's the stylistic opposite of this one) is charismatic, and the occasional moments when he's allowed to suggest that Riggs is genuinely a danger to himself and others are so strong they made me wish Miller was willing, or allowed, to pursue that darker tone. But the final version shrugs off the darkness, and the consequences, in favor of Riggs agitating the hell out of Murtaugh, Murtaugh's wife Trish (Keesha Sharp), their exasperated boss (Kevin Rahm, Teddy Chow-guh-guh from Mad Men), and everyone else he encounters.
Wayans is over a decade older than Glover was at the time of the first Lethal Weapon, but is so well-preserved that I wouldn't be surprised if told that Damon Wayans Jr. was the one playing Murtaugh. To compensate, this Murtaugh recently had open heart surgery and is allegedly at risk of death if his heart rate gets too elevated for too long. This actually seems like a ridiculous high-concept premise that deserves its own movie or show, rather than being grafted onto a reboot of a familiar franchise – and preferably involving the former alpha male rather than the beta. (Basically, the opposite of Crank.) Here, it's a gimmick that the show hits early in each episode, then abandons altogether once the bullets have to start flying, or (in the pilot's silliest sequence) when Riggs and Murtaugh get into a car chase that leads them onto a grand prix race track.
Like most of the show, Murtaugh's heart condition creates the illusion of gravitas without being interested in the real thing. This is a slick, watered-down Lethal Weapon, which is especially frustrating because it has those moments (like the ones in the later films) where it feels like it understands the point of it all, before abandoning that to do something goofier. If it was an homage rather than an official reboot, maybe its lightweight qualities would go down easier. But this represents the downside of dusting off an old brand name: viewers old enough to care about the title (or will appreciate the references to Miami Vice, Starsky and Hutch, or even Airplane!) will likely have the least patience for it, while those who might not mind what it is will be least drawn in by its association with a movie made back in the days when we still enjoyed watching Mel Gibson go berserk.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com