Nostalgia for the semi-recent past is everywhere in television: Shows set in the ’80s and ’90s or that tweak legacy properties have become common. Networks want to break through the pop-culture clutter with known quantities, and even new series have found nuggets of thematic and aesthetic gold in the pre-millennial era. Not all of the throwback series have worked, but some inspired by the past have been among the most scintillating offerings of the present.
And then there’s Fox’s “Lethal Weapon” and CBS’ “MacGyver,” which demonstrate the limits of the reliance on older properties. These shows, both of which are based on hits from the ’80s, have no spark of their own, and add nothing of value to their respective franchises.
These plodding dramas do not evoke the past as much as they pretend that the past 30 years did not happen. Audiences are extremely familiar with the kinds of story beats that drive not just these “new” programs but the hundreds that came before them; buddy-cop and spy-guy moves have been remixed and repeated for decades, but these derivative works ignore that reality.
Both programs seem like broken relics from a time capsule; neither does much to update, add to or simply have fun with these well-regarded properties. That each ransacks its source material in search of something fresh and lively, and comes up empty, is astonishing and disappointing, given that these programs — at least one of them — could have provided a whole lot of escapist fun.
“MacGyver” should have been one of the fall’s slam-dunks; the property is known and loved by many TV fans of a certain age, and its cheerfully inventive hero could have become part of a renewed TV franchise that drew in both old-school fans and gadget-loving newcomers. How hard could it be to find a charming actor to play a smart rogue who has a string of zippy, espionage-driven adventures? Quite hard, apparently.
Lucas Till’s performance as the title character misses the mark completely; even when MacGyver explains the contraptions he builds on the fly via voiceovers, Till’s delivery is wooden and clunky. The writing doesn’t help — the pilot script is full of silly plot short-cuts and painfully cheesy lines — but there’s no getting around the fact that the new version of the character has very little appeal, and certainly won’t put the memory of Richard Dean Anderson, who originated the role, out of anyone’s mind.
CBS has a very successful procedural formula: It usually revolves around a rule-breaking lead who assembles a team willing to do whatever it takes to assist him (and it’s usually a him). Just because the Eye network (and many others) have used that format a lot doesn’t mean it can’t be highly effective and enjoyable. But whatever the new “MacGyver” is trying to do, USA’s “Burn Notice” (to cite just one example) did it much, much better. George Eads does what he can to bring a bit of energy to the MacGyver spy crew, but it’s a futile effort. MacGyver may know a lot about chemistry, but this unmemorable team has none.
“Lethal Weapon” was always going to have trouble living up to the electric pairing of Danny Glover and Mel Gibson, the stars of the 1987 film. Despite the fact that the performances by Damon Wayons and Clayne Crawford are perfectly respectable, this restrained TV version of the franchise lacks the original’s unusually effective blend of cop procedural, careening action, and sweaty desperation.
In part thanks to the fact that the first Glover-Gibson film was a massive hit, the mismatched cop duo has become another TV standby, one that many old and new TV series have capitalized on to good effect. But this one goes through the motions without providing any memorable moments along the way.
Crawford’s Riggs exudes a believable combination of anguish and charm, and Wayans’ Roger Murtaugh is bemused and frustrated in mildly entertaining ways here and there. But overall, this “Lethal Weapon” feels like a regurgitation of not just the film, but of several decades’ worth of cop-show formulas. Even its chase scenes are bit tiresome, and fail to set themselves apart from the thousands that play out on large and small screens every year. Murtaugh never utters the line “I’m too old for this shit” (at least not in full), but much of “Lethal Weapon,” despite the best efforts of its cast, reflects that very sentiment: It feels tired and uninspired.
One thing the shows share is an annoying adherence to the idea that the only thing that can make their tough heroes feel anything deeply is a tragedy or trauma involving the women in their lives. Whatever you think of the sexist foundations of that particular cliché, it’s 2016 (really, it is — I checked). Not only has that device been done to death (quite literally), it carries with it a whole range of unsettling implications about the value of female lives in TV narratives. When they exist only to fuel the emotional and logistical struggles of men, especially in pilots that are already derivative in any number of ways, it raises a large red flag about the writers’ willingness to seek originality in the realms of motivation and characterization.
In any event, when it comes to their inciting incidents, both pilots not only go to predictable extremes, they exhibit strange and skewed assumptions about what it takes to make men feel or do anything. These are meant to be enjoyable, light programs, and providing that kind of weekly escape is an honorable endeavor. But more attention should have been put into the care and feeding of these old warhorses. It’s hard not to escape the conclusion that Murtaugh, Riggs and Angus MacGyver, not to mention the mostly underwritten female (and male) characters around them, deserved better than this.