Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Pilot Review: Lethal Weapon & The Exorcist

Fox had two small-screen takes on big-screen hits debut this past week, continuing a trend on television we've seen for the past few years (following Limitless, Damien, Bates Motel, Fargo, Minority Report, and a slew of others). Lethal Weapon and The Exorcist each demonstrate the weaknesses and strengths that can be found in mining films for television gold.

Lethal Weapon (Wednesdays at 8:00 on Fox)

First up is Lethal Weapon, based on the franchise begun in the 1980s with the Mel Gibson-Danny Glover team-up. While not the first example of the mismatched buddy-cop film, Lethal Weapon (and its sequels) are arguably the most famous and most beloved. The series follows closely, but not exactly, the original film's premise. In this iteration, set in present day, Martin Riggs (Clayne Crawford, Rectify) is a Texas Ranger who relocates to Los Angeles following his pregnant wife's death to bury her in her hometown. In the months following the loss of his family, Riggs has become reckless and carefree, actively trying to get himself killed so he can be with his wife and unborn child again (but not by committing suicide, because his wife wouldn't approve). He's assigned by the LAPD as partner to by-the-book detective Roger Murtaugh (Damon Wayans, My Wife and Kids), a fifty year-old father of three who had a heart attack while his wife was giving birth to their infant daughter, an unexpected surprise. He's cautioned to take it easy, but Riggs obviously can't do that.

All the familiar points from the film are here, but somehow Lethal Weapon just feels off. Maybe it's the shadows of Gibson and Glover hanging over Crawford and Wayans, but the chemistry isn't there. In their individual scenes, they pull it off fine; Wayans is especially entertaining alongside Keesha Sharp (The People v. OJ Simpson) as his wife. But when they get together, the spark that made the film series work fades away and is replaced by washed-out cinematography that looks like the film was fed through the sierra Instagram filter and endless car chases and shoot outs. Those things were an important part of Lethal Weapon, but they were secondary to the characters. With just 40ish minutes to reestablish these characters and work them through a procedural plot (a man seems to have shot himself but Murtaugh suspects murder, connecting the victim back to Riggs' former life in Texas), the characters fall by the wayside in favor of flashy action, unsurprising when you consider McG (Terminator Salvation, the Charlie's Angels films) directed the pilot.

What we end up with is a mediocre retread of the original film without the same heart (or budget, despite how good those action scenes sometimes look). There's no reason for this Lethal Weapon to exist, as it adds nothing new to the characters or story. It's just a name-brand cash-in of the familiar buddy cop procedural genre, similar to what CBS tried last season with Rush Hour.

The Exorcist (Fridays at 9:00 on Fox)

On the other side of the coin, The Exorcist successfully transitions from a film franchise to a television extension. Creator Jeremy Slater (who wrote an early draft of last year's wretched Fantastic Four, though he insists much of what he contributed was removed or changed) frames the series as not a remake of the much-respected and much-loved William Friedkin film (and its subsequent, much less-liked sequels) or of the William Blatty novel. Rather this Exorcist exists within the same universe but tells a completely new story and introduces totally new characters.

Among those new characters are the Rances: teenagers Casey (Hannah Kasulka, The Fosters) and Kat (Brianne Howey), who is dealing with the death of her best friend and her role in it; dad Henry (Alan Ruck, Spin City), who is demonstrating signs of early Alzheimer's; and mom Angela (Oscar winner Geena Davis in her first regular TV role since 2005's Commander in Chief), who's trying to hold everyone together. As tensions mount in the Rance household, things start to get weird. Angela hears voices in the walls. Furniture moves by itself. Angela seeks the help of her parish priest, Father Tomas Ortega (Alfonso Herrera, Sense8), who has his own demons to deal with. After investigating the home and experiencing a terrifying series of dreams, Tomas reaches out to Father Marcus Keane (Ben Daniels, wonderful in Starz's Flesh and Bone), a Vatican exorcist, to find out what's going on.

It would have been easy for Slater to simply retell the familiar story of Regan MacNeill and just deliver all the expected scenes and scares (the spider walk, the head spin, the pea soup), but we get a much more complex approach to The Exorcist instead. In this version, everyone has demons. Everyone is possessed by something. Kat is possessed by guilt and grief. Tomas is possessed by the memories of his past. Marcus is possessed by his failures. Angela is possessed by her need for normalcy and familiarity. The physical demons are just one part of this story. And yes, they're pretty effective when they show up. A late-pilot scene set in the Rance attic is full of jump scares, and the odd occurrences which plague the Rances are unsettling. But this version of The Exorcist is just as much a psychological horror story, similar to the 1973 film, the events of which are briefly hinted at in a newspaper headline Tomas skims past. Just like the film raised questions of faith, this adaptation presents the possibility that these disturbances may be imagined, some manifestations of all the psychological torment haunting the Rances as the formerly-lively Henry's mind deteriorates and the family structure follows suit. There's a lot more time to devote to themes like this in a thirteen-hour series than in a two-hour film, and so far Slater has set them up nicely. Whether future episodes can follow through on the strong promise of the pilot remains to be seen.

One thing that should stay consistent, though, is the strength of the cast. Herrera is deeply affecting as Tomas, young and innocent enough but with mournful, wise-beyond-his-years eyes. Alan Ruck gets the most heartbreaking and role, and he plays Henry's big scene with Tomas perfectly, switching from foreboding to sympathetic like a light turning off. Daniels' role is the showiest, and he chews the scenery with the best of them in flashbacks to an exorcism in Mexico City. Everyone is really top-notch, as is the direction from Rise of the Planet of the Apes helmer Rupert Wyatt; he sets everything in dark, muted, washed-out grays and blacks and blues, filling the pilot with a feeling of gloominess and impending terror.

Just as Lethal Weapon was an example of how film-to-TV adaptations can be simple, unnecessary remakes of their source material, The Exorcist, much like Fargo, demonstrates how they can tell interesting, fresh stories while honoring the themes of the original. If you only watch one small-screen translation of a big-screen classic, go with the The Exorcist.

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