It’s fall, season of mists, mellow fruitfulness, and new TV shows. Around this time of year, the networks try to convince those elusive creatures—adults 18 to 49 who watch television within a few days of original airing on a device that isn’t their computer or smartphone—to commit to watching 20+ episodes of a brand new program. As if that weren’t challenge enough, television, like razors and deodorants, is gendered. The networks, which need to draw millions of young eyeballs to commercials, have had some success attracting female viewers with soapy dramas like Fox’s Empire and ABC’s Thursday night ShondaLand lineup. But young men, who don’t seem to watch much of anything other than sports and action movies, are the networks’ unicorns. (NCIS is a ratings monster, but its old-skewing audience isn’t the one the networks are hot for.)
One way the networks have tried to woo male viewers is with small-screen reboots of action and thriller franchises. Rush Hour was a dud for CBS this summer, but in the coming weeks and months we’ll see The Exorcist (Fox), Westworld (HBO), Training Day (CBS)—and MacGyver (CBS), a reboot of a 1980s TV show. Maybe these third-generation-photocopy shows will draw male eyeballs, but they don’t seem to hold much appeal to women.
There is, however, one new network show that might have a fighting chance of catching on with youngs of all genders—a movie-franchise reboot I was utterly shocked to fall in love with. Lethal Weapon, which debuts Wednesday night on Fox, is a total sausage fest, but it has a familiar name, solid procedural elements, spectacular action sequences, and shockingly effective sentimental backstories for its charming male leads.
The setup of the new Lethal Weapon mirrors its big-screen predecessor: Martin Riggs (Clayne Crawford) is a bad-ass cop in El Paso, Texas. The former Navy SEAL is a fun-loving guy who enjoys his job and is good at it—and then at the end of the first act, his beloved wife is killed as she drives to the hospital to give birth to their baby. Cut to a busted Riggs waking up in a messy trailer parked somewhere in Los Angeles, nursing a raging hangover and a death wish. Riggs is making a fresh start at the LAPD, where his new partner is Roger Murtaugh (Damon Wayans), just back to work after suffering a massive heart attack while his wife was delivering their third child—a surprise who came along just as their teenagers were nearing college age. It’s a fresh take on the odd couple trope (as long as you haven’t seen the Mel Gibson-Danny Glover movie too recently): one guy just wants to die, the other is terrified he won’t live much longer.
The pilot episode was directed by McG—who has directed movies like Charlie’s Angels and We Are Marshall as well as TV dross such as The Mysteries of Laura and Kevin From Work. This time around, though, his action-movie skills are put to good use. The explosions and trick shots are much better than you typically see on television—at one point, Riggs and Murtaugh find themselves driving around the LA Grand Prix circuit while the race is happening.
To be honest, I couldn’t care less about action—most weeks I’d probably fast forward through the fight scenes—but I was won over by the show’s emotional power. Grieving Riggs’ suicidal state of mind is troubling—but it makes a cynical viewer like me root for the guy. Widowers are nothing new on television—in recent years, Matthew Perry has played one on Go On, Taye Diggs lost his wife in the debut season of Murder in the First, and Matt Lanter is bereaved on NBC’s laughably awful new time-travel series Timeless. On Lethal Weapon, though, Crawford is vulnerable, broken, and utterly believable. Toward the end of the pilot, he begs a bad guy to shoot him. “I miss my girl,” he cries. His pain is so convincing, he left me wanting to stick around for a few weeks just to make sure he’s all right.