Critic's Notebook: Are Fox's 'Lethal Weapon' and 'The Exorcist' Helped or Hurt by Recognizable Titles?

It's not enough to be an OK buddy cop show or an OK demonic possession show when you're called 'Lethal Weapon' or 'The Exorcist.'
Jean Whiteside/FOX
'The Exorcist'
[If you make it far enough, this article contains spoilers for the most recent episode of Fox's The Exorcist.]
 
Enemy of the State premiered nearly 18 years ago and although it was eerily prescient when it comes to the threat of government surveillance, it was a hit ($111 million domestic), but not a blockbuster, even with Will Smith as star. Remembering that Smith's character was a lawyer unconnected to encroaching intelligence spying and knowing that Smith isn't going to have a darned thing to do with a network TV show based on the property, what empirical value could there be in doing an Enemy of the State TV sequel? What does a show about NSA spooks titled Enemy of the State give you that a show about NSA spooks with a different name doesn't? Little matter. ABC is developing Enemy of the State as a TV series.
 
Sneakers is even older. It premiered in 1992 and, like Enemy of the State, it was a hit ($51 million), but not a blockbuster. And, like Enemy of the State, it was ahead of the curve in terms of both proto-hacking and Oceans 11-esque heist fun. But what does a heist-y show about hackers and thieves called Sneakers give you by way of brand equity in 2016 that a show about similar characters with a different name (especially since the '60s connections between those characters will almost certainly be scrapped in order to go for the 18-49 demo) doesn't? Little matter. NBC is developing Sneakers as a TV series.
 
 
I'm not so oblivious that I don't understand the TV business' over-reliance on intellectual property even though recent precedent is more littered with IP failures than IP successes. But I remain at a loss as to the value a TV show can get from having almost no connection to a movie or TV show that has been only on the periphery of public consciousness. Fox seemed shocked last fall when viewers didn't embrace a bad version of Minority Report that didn't feature Tom Cruise's character from the movie or anything recognizably tying it to the movie. Frequency on The CW isn't exactly doing horribly — lead-ins are still powerful, no matter what you might have read — but has its performance been somehow improved by using the title of a not-especially-recent movie, though none of the same characters other than the ham radio? 
 
There's no question that established awareness of certain brands can get some eyeballs and CBS' MacGyver has, at least in the early going, been able to capitalize on its name, even if the quality has been absent.
 
But what about the shows that might have been better off standing on their own? Or at least the shows that have merits of their own, but have been done no favors by branded names? The benefit of the doubt that shows sometimes get from their IP when it comes to series orders and marketing often becomes the opposite when it comes to critical and audience reception.
 
I was thinking about all this over the weekend as I caught up on Fox's Lethal Weapon and The Exorcist, two shows based on names whose value ought to be unambiguous. This isn't an Enemy of the State or a Sneakers or a Frequency situation. The Lethal Weapon franchise is the foundational text of the modern buddy cop genre in the same way that The Exorcist is foundational in the modern horror genre. These are brands recognized and loved across any generation that matters. Yes, even millennials know Lethal Weapon and The Exorcist.
 
But they're also brands that demand raised expectations. My critical partner-in-crime Tim Goodman reviewed both shows negatively and although I might have been a bit sunnier in each case, I understand why. 
 
If you have a show called Lethal Weapon and the main characters are called Murtaugh and Riggs, I'm going to compare your new stars and new characters to Danny Glover and Mel Gibson. The McG-directed Lethal Weapon pilot was much more in the vein of the third or fourth Lethal Weapon movies than the first one. And the third and fourth Lethal Weapon movies are awful parasites sucking off the good faith of the original movie, which made the TV series look like a parasite sucking off the tepid faith of another parasite. I don't know how parasites work, exactly, but that seems like a bad parasitic model. Out come the critical teeth and I assume audiences respond the same way.
 
And if you call a show The Exorcist, but then only connect the show to the movie through newspaper clippings and a manipulative use of "Tubular Bells" and the pilot is atmospheric, but not even vaguely scary... Out come the critical teeth and I assume audiences respond the same way.
 
That brings me to this observation: Lethal Weapon and The Exorcist are both decent shows with some promise, but they were burdened with titles that left them unable to meet expectations, especially when the had pilots that didn't immediately provide reassurance. FX's Fargo isn't a formula that can be reproduced often.
 
Clayne Crawford and Damon Wayans aren't Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, but they're likable performers and they've established a chemistry that, in almost no time, has generated a buddy dynamic like little else on TV at the moment. Their bickering is almost never hilarious or sociologically brilliant, but there's sometimes some cleverness to the young/old and white/black of it all. Crawford, so excellent on Rectify, is playing a version of Riggs whose PTSD edges have been sanded blunt, but still remain in occasionally worthwhile ways, though it was notable that a recent episode with Michael Raymond-James had a war veteran character who, as a villain, was much closer to the Gibson take on Riggs than Crawford has ever gotten to be. And I've truly liked the relationship between Murtaugh and his wife (Keesha Sharp) and kids. Kevin Rahm makes a good exasperated boss and the LAPD team supporting Riggs and Murtaugh is getting more developed each week and it's been funny watching American Crime breakout Richard Cabral try to operate in such a "normal" playground.
 
When I first watched the Lethal Weapon pilot, I thought it felt more like a remake of the short-lived Fox action series Fastlane than like Lethal Weapon and I wonder if critics and viewers might have responded more warmly to its efforts if it had been called... anything else. Yes, this Lethal Weapon is connected to the movies, but why did it need to be? If this show were called Smith & Wesson and it's about two mismatched LAPD detectives, a wacky ex-soldier named  Smith and a older, African-American officer named Wesson, does it get credit for being playful and silly and action-packed? Sure, reviews might say, "Smith & Wesson is trying to be a Lethal Weapon for a new generation," but isn't that less damning than saying, "Lethal Weapon is trying to be Lethal Weapon and failing"? I don't think that hypothetical Smith & Wesson does appreciably worse, since its ratings are thanks to the Empire halo, but maybe with lower expectations, it doesn't have expectations to fall short of? 
 
 
And what of The Exorcist
 
[Here come the spoilers.]
 
In last week's episode, we finally got a concrete connection between the William Friedkin film (and William Peter Blatty novel) and the new Fox series. Geena Davis' Angela Rance revealed that her actual name was Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair's character) and then Sharon Gless showed up at the end of the episode as Chris MacNeil and while the age math between the two doesn't quite work out... It'll do. It's the second time already that we've had to realign our thoughts on who, exactly, The Demon was targeting, since the first episode's twist was that we thought Brianne Howey's Katherine was possessed, only to learn that she was merely sad and depressed and Hannah Kasulka's Casey was being inhabited. Now we're supposed to figure that no matter which of her daughters is the victim, the family has been chosen because of Angela/Regan. 
 
I can look at the decision to reveal the twist in the fifth episode rather than earlier in two ways.
 
The first: You call your show The Exorcist and the only connections you establish in the pilot feel like cheats? That's a good way to alienate viewers. The news clippings and "Tubular Bells" usage in the pilot practically screamed, "We're in the same universe as The Exorcist, but not really anything else," a spiritual sequel rather than a straight-up reboot or organic sequel. Had the pilot ended with the Angela/Regan reveal instead of the Katherine/Casey switcheroo and maybe audiences go, "OK. I see how the continuity works and I'm eager to follow this story, because this is a franchise I like." Instead, the pilot was limp and atmospheric, rather than scary and I bet some viewers wanted more frights. If Lethal Weapon suffered from having the same name and failing in direct comparisons, The Exorcist suffered from having the same name and lying about direct comparisons.
 
The second: Subsequent episodes were much nastier and creepier than the pilot and Kasulka's performance in particular has become a reason to watch. Kasulka's work in the subway possession set piece was even more disturbing than last week's episode, which fell back into "Power of Christ compels you" familiarity. Paired with Alan Ruck's haunted work as Angela's hubby and Casey's dad, there have been relationships I've begun to care about in a tiny way. Revealing the Angela/Regan twist in the pilot would have felt cheap because it would have been a gamechanger to a game I wasn't invested in (though the Katherine/Casey possession swap felt the same). Maybe now I am? It was a twist that, in retrospect, feels really obvious, but also organic enough. Without four episodes of foundation-laying, maybe it wouldn't have felt organic.
 
The promise of the title of Lethal Weapon has never been fulfilled, but The Exorcist may be getting there, but probably too late. Alfonso Herrera's Father Tomas has been a big letdown, especially compared to Ben Daniels' showier/hammier work as the more established priest, and it's only now that we're seeing how The Exorcist lured Oscar winner Davis into the fold. Still, if I were to review The Exorcist now after five episodes, my review would be much more positive than it would have been after the pilot, ditto with Lethal Weapon, because it's now possible to review the show and not the title.
 
In both cases, the shows are currently just OK and if the cliche says that "good is the enemy of great," then OK and good must have some true hostilities. But if good shows deserve the chance to develop and become great, then OK shows deserve the chance to become good. Having to start with unavoidable denigrating comparisons put Lethal Weapon and The Exorcist in a deficit from the beginning.
 
Now don't get me started on why anybody would want to try to reboot Knight Rider again.
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