“The power’s in the repetition,” says one of two priests who team up to cast out a demon in The Exorcist. The line is a throwaway, and it’s directly related to the plot — he’s talking about the use of incantations in exorcism rites — but in context it sounds like a coded plea to give this new Fox show a chance even though everybody with eyeballs saw the same-named 1973 film, and maybe one of the sequels as well, and is primed to loathe it. As it happens, The Exorcist isn’t the only new Fox show to adapt an existing, wildly popular movie franchise for the small screen: Lethal Weapon, based on the Mel Gibson–Danny Glover buddy cop movies, bows Wednesday evening, right before the season premiere of Empire. (The scheduling makes more practical sense than that of The Exorcist, which is positioned as a follow-up to — yes, really — Hell’s Kitchen.)
Glover’s and Gibson’s roles are played by Damon Wayans and Rectify’s Clayne Crawford, but it’s not a good idea to get too high and mighty about that, as the dialogue regularly reminds us: Other characters address the live-wire Los Angeles police detectives as Crockett and Tubbs and Tango and Cash, the better to situate them in a certain, um, tradition. It’s worth pointing out — or perhaps it isn’t, but hey, this is my review — that even though the four Lethal Weapon films were crowd-pleasing hits, critics saw them as an example of television’s corrosive mindlessness invading cinema, and they weren’t wrong. The yammering, suicidal Vietnam vet and widower Riggs and his straitlaced suburbanite partner Murtaugh belonged to a tradition of wisecracking, skull-busting lawmen like Starsky and Hutch, Kojak and Baretta: attack dogs for the Establishment, cool enough to banter with the perps they were trying to bust. Their spectacular adventures wrapped up in the manner of pre-serialized drama, by hitting an implied reset button before the end credits. This was the kind of film series that capped its second installment with Riggs going on a revenge rampage, killing the South African swine who killed both his wife and his new girlfriend, then bleeding out in the hold of a cargo ship while series co-scorer Eric Clapton moaned “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” only to pick up the third film with Riggs in fine fettle and looking for love, with barely a mention of past trauma.
Developed for TV by Matt Miller — the brains behind Fox’s Human Target, which had one excellent season and then became garbage — and directed by Charlie’s Angels rebooter McG, Lethal Weapon is probably best viewed as one of two things: an illustration of the symbiotic relationship between two competing mediums (TV borrowing from films that borrowed from TV), and a reminder that if you’re gonna remake something, you should really just go ahead and remake it.
Miller and McG do a decent job of aping the macho-jocular tone of Richard Donner’s film series, which, at its most ludicrous, felt like Hollywood’s answer to a Jackie Chan action comedy; but the “Look, Ma, no consequences” action seems like a more comfortable fit for movies than for network television at this point, and there are times when you might wish they’d pick a lane and stay in it for a while. The opening sequence of the pilot crosscuts between Riggs, a former Navy SEAL turned El Paso DEA agent, embroiled in a high-speed chase while gabbing on a cell phone to his very pregnant wife, who’s driving herself to the hospital to give birth. As is canon, a car wreck kills her; the story flash-forwards six months to find a grieving, suicidal, alcoholic Riggs adapting to a new job with the LAPD, in partnership with Murtaugh. The latter meets his new mate from afar when Riggs sashays into the middle of a bank robbery with an armload of pizzas and neutralizes the robbers in seconds flat.
Wayans and Crawford bring their own oddball energy to parts that will likely have “Property of Gibson and Glover” stamped on them for all time. Wayans is less world-weary and more manic than his predecessor, while Crawford makes Riggs — an assortment of psycho tics and depressive badass clichés, held together by Gibson’s wild-assed energy — into something close to a plausible human being. At their most competitive, the stars might remind older viewers of Newman and Redford, only in that both actors seem to want to be the charismatic, dangerous one, and that extra-dramatic sense of one-upsmanship is more fun to watch than it has any right to be.
But aside from a few unexpectedly sincere, even lyrical images — such as a close-up of Murtaugh’s heart-surgery-scarred chest, and an overhead shot of a beaten Riggs sprawled outside a bar in Christ-figure pose — there’s nothing in the first two episodes that’ll quash the urge to turn off Lethal Weapon the TV series and put on one of the movies instead. And even for a show that wears its populist tendencies with pride, the show has little faith in its audience’s ability to grasp a simple story: The opening act of episode two flashes back to Riggs’s wife’s death, just in case we’d forgotten about it during the preceding week, and the script is filled with dialogue along the lines of “It sure is great to be married to you, wife and mother of my kids” and “I sure miss being partners with you, former partner.” Not every film series necessarily needs to be a TV show — even one that derives much of its identity from the lamest clichés of pre-millennial television, including a “In my office, now!” captain played by Mad Men’s Kevin Rahm.
Speaking of TV shows of questionable necessity: The Exorcist is a good try at translating a classic from another medium, but it might have had more impact if it knew how to build to its shocks instead of just serving them up as spice, and if we hadn’t seen so many other intimate, creepy TV horror series that use William Friedkin’s film version of William Peter Blatty’s novel as inspiration. The best of the latter is Cinemax’s Outcast, which treats ghosts, demons, and curses both literally, as supernatural forces wreaking havoc with mortal lives, and as metaphors for trauma. The Exorcist might get a handle on that idea eventually, but it never gets there in the pilot, even though it brings it up. (“Demons aren’t real, they are an invention of the church to explain things like demons, mental illness … demons are metaphors.”) Alfonso Herrera stars as Father Tomas, a Chicago priest who’s asked by a well-off parishioner (Geena Davis) to investigate the possible demonic possession of her teenage daughter (Hannah Kasulka). (The symptoms she’s manifesting sound more like evidence of a poltergeist, but whatevs.)
Father Tomas is afflicted by visions of a second priest battling a demon — his future exorcism partner, Father Marcus Keane (Ben Daniels) — and sees him clearly even though (apparently) they’ve never met before. This is one of the only really intriguing notions in the pilot. To keep this show going, series creator Jeremy Slater and his collaborators are going to have to build a rich and multifaceted world with its own internal logic, which is a very different proposition from simply extruding the plot of a well-regarded movie until it fills out a season of television. But even if you can do that, you still run the risk of falling into a “demon of the week” mode and becoming something like The X-Files with projectile vomiting and crucifixes. (The Georgetown possession from the 1973 Exorcist is mentioned in the pilot as backstory, a touch that suggests that this series aims to be more an extension of a movie than a reboot — something along the lines of FX’s Fargo, which incorporates plot points from the 1996 Coen brothers film.) The David Fincher–style neon-dumpster color scheme, multilayered sound design, and crackerjack supporting performances (including Alan Ruck as Davis’s deeply damaged husband) make it worth a look, though whether the power of Christ will compel repeated viewings remains to be seen.