‘Lethal Weapon’ Proves TV Doesn’t Always Have To Peak To Be Good

Toward the end of the pilot episode, Lethal Weapon‘s Martin Riggs (Clayne Crawford) and Roger Murtaugh (Damon Wayans) find themselves in a precarious position. A sniper has pinned down the unlikely duo behind a well-lit position, Riggs has been shot, and Murtaugh only has one bullet left. Another gun with plenty of ammo is nearby, but it’s within spitting distance of the shooter. Hence Riggs’ half-cocked plan to use himself as bait while Murtaugh fires the kill shot. “Are you insane?” Murtaugh whines. “He will kill you!” Crazy or not, Riggs doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, it’s what he wants, and his sadly sweet smile says it all: “I miss my girl.”

Lethal Weapon shouldn’t work despite scenes like this, and if CBS’s decision to cancel Rush Hour — a poorly executed adaptation of another buddy cop film franchise — is any indication, the likelihood that Fox will nix it after one season is high. (After all, Peak TV is alive and well, so axing a dozen new scripted shows on broadcast, cable and streaming television won’t make that much of a difference.) Yet the scene (and others) works so well, and for several reasons, that creator Matthew Miller’s version of Richard Donner and Shane Black’s classic characters deserves more than a passing glance. Lethal Weapon neither tries nor wants to reinvent the wheel. Nor should it.

Like the 1987 Lethal Weapon, the show finds a younger, fresher Martin Riggs paired up with Roger Murtaugh, a senior detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. Crawford’s Riggs has moved to California from Texas to start over after his wife, Miranda (Floriana Lima), and their unborn child were killed in a car accident. Wayans’s Murtaugh, on the other hand, isn’t just some old man fearing retirement and senility, but a heart attack survivor whose already sizable family has added another member for him to worry about.

Captain Brooks Avery (Kevin Rahm), Murtaugh’s former partner turned boss, assigns him Riggs despite familiar complaints made in a formulaic familiar scene. “Look, it’s my first day back. I don’t want to have to babysit some adrenaline junkie with PTSD!” Yet Riggs’ transfer comes complete with unknown friends in high places, so Murtaugh has no choice but to oblige. The result: The bank robbery and high-speed chase scenes repeated to death in the promos, countless near death experiences relished by Riggs and loathed by Murtaugh, and constant will-he-or-won’t-he suicidal contemplation.

Miller peppers the script with tweaks, like Jordana Brewster’s department therapist Maureen Cahill, whose dynamic with Riggs thankfully doesn’t replicate the animosity suffered by Mary Ellen Trainor’s Dr. Stephanie Woods in the films. But the ripest addition is Riggs’ backstory, and the manner in which Crawford brings it to life. And while Gibson’s painful (if not occasionally extreme) performance in the first movie stands out, Crawford’s super cop with a slight drawl offers a more nuanced interpretation.

Consider one of the franchise’s most famous scenes, in which Gibson’s Riggs nearly kills himself in a depressed, booze-filled stupor. He loads his gun and pushes it first against his forehead, then into his mouth, before breaking down and consoling himself with a photo of his wife. “I miss you,” he cries onto the picture frame. Nearly 30 years later, the series features a similar scene just before Murtaugh gets his new assignment. As before, Riggs sits alone in his trailer with plenty of alcohol, a picture of his dead wife, and a loaded weapon. Instead of sticking the nozzle straight into his mouth to rehash Gibson’s scenery chewing, however, Crawford spins the gun until it points right at him. Too apathetic to act, he responds, “Bang.”

Character choices notwithstanding, Lethal Weapon generally opts for formula over frills. The all too recognizable beats of a police procedural reverberate throughout the pilot, which balances its shootouts and explosions with a perpetually angry Brooks, a concerned Cahill, and a CSI knockoff whose nickname is — swear to God — Scorsese. (As actor Johnathan Fernandez puts it in his debut scene, “I wrote a script so these geniuses call me ‘Scorsese.'”) Well-worn plot points and overly contrived jokes like these won’t score Miller and company points for originality, but they’re also so established that they seem kind of comforting.

Besides, by playing the straight man to Peak TV’s boisterous cast of fresh-faced players, Lethal Weapon just might possess the tools to turn things around in later episodes. A striking, but otherwise hidden possibility lies in Keesha Sharp’s Trish Murtaugh, who works as a criminal defense attorney. (In the movies, Darlene Love played the character as a housewife-turned-bestselling romance novelist.) The tension latent in a marriage between a police officer and a lawyer are, despite Murtaugh’s assurances to Brooks, rife with narrative possibility. That would only become more obvious if, given the obvious racial disparity between the two main characters, Lethal Weapon decides to tackle stories inspired by numerous police shootings, the Black Lives Matter protest movement, and other related real world news items. Of course this all depends on whether or not Miller and his team even want to do such a thing. And seeing as how Lethal Weapon works well enough to please the general audiences Fox is targeting, this might not be the case.

Lethal Weapon premieres Wednesday, September 21 at 8 p.m. ET on FOX. Until then, here’s a preview…