Foxs film to TV offerings have succeeded but CBSs MacGyver reboot gets it all wrong. So what makes a good adaptation tick: self-parody
When a cable or streaming show is widely lauded for innovation, its a fair bet that broadcast network imitators wont be far behind: for every Mad Men, the TV development process will produce three derivative Pan Ams. Fall 2016 has taken that trend to its natural conclusion, revivifying the corpses of old film and TV franchises and turning them into the least-wanted zombies since Fear the Walking Dead.
TV is no stranger to adaptation, of course, from Syfys The Magicians to FXs Fargo but the biggest shock of the fall is that these shows arent half bad. Take Foxs The Exorcist, a pilot that takes the viewers uneasy feelings about an Exorcist TV show and incorporates them into its generally effective mood of discomfort and creeping horror. Like the little-watched, uninspired Omen series Damien, The Exorcist takes its cues from the idea of legacy, rather than a straight-up reboot, The Exorcist is a sequel of sorts. (Series protagonist Father Tomas, ably played by Sense8s Alfonso Herrera, encounters news clippings describing the events of the film.) But where Damien is almost entirely about its relationship to The Omen and suffers accordingly, The Exorcist uses its forebear to establish the ground rules of its world without too much fanfare: there are demons here, and it will cost something to send them away.
The notion of cost is anathema to Foxs other surprisingly successful adaptation of a beloved film: Lethal Weapon. Against all odds, this show is incredibly endearing, and even if its not going to make many hardcore fans, it still seems likely to prove consistently entertaining. Lethal Weapon, for all its obvious stupidity (and its pretty obvious in the pilot alone, Murtaugh and Riggs foil a bank robbery with pizza, blow up a car, and practically skip chasing mobsters around a shady warehouse), is very fun, like something that would have been on USA before the gloominess of Mr Robot. Beyond the fun, easy chemistry between Clayne Crawfords demented Riggs and Damon Wayans not-yet-too-old-for-this-shit Murtaugh, Lethal Weapon is good because its a loving self parody: these characters dont have the fate of the world in their hands, they just want to goof around and solve some crimes.
CBSs reboot of MacGyver is, in some places, shooting for the same vibe as Lethal Weapon, particularly in the helpful pieces of text that show up to label things like electronics that Angus needs to use to construct gadgets. Sadly, MacGyver is atrociously bad, a disaster that is all the more tragic for how uninteresting it is. There are several moments of attempted updates to the premise (including extremely poor attempts to integrate a disjointed group of operatives into the global security apparatus), but MacGyver remains steadfastly traditional in its revolting attitude toward women, first appearing to fridge a character before turning her into the demonic embodiment of womanly charms.
MacGyvers casual male chauvinism is worth noting primarily because its basically the only thing about the show that raises an interesting question about the current crop of TV remakes. What does it mean to repurpose an older property that was designed to exist in a cultural moment that was far less aware of the ghosts of sexism, racism and all other forms of systemic injustice haunting writers rooms especially now, when a TV shows expression of values comes, almost inevitably, under intense scrutiny?
The Exorcist and Lethal Weapon succeed, in large part, by actively ignoring these questions or, more specifically, explicitly creating a space where they dont need to be asked. The pleasures of each show are visceral and generic, almost by design. Herrera is charmingly naive as Father Tomas, and though Ben Daniels doesnt get a ton to do as the tortured older priest Father Marcus, the two have enough chemistry to suggest that watching them fight demons will, in fact, be fun. Likewise, Lethal Weapons new Murtaugh and Riggs exist purely to please an audience, bouncing off their captain, played by Kevin Rahm (Mad Mens Ted Chaough).
The falsest notes in these series are, unsurprisingly, the ones that feel the most like network notes on an updated version of a beloved property: Murtaugh has an Apple watch that tracks his heart rate, and he and Riggs deploy goofy detective methods that wouldnt be out of place in the zoom and enhance lab on CSI. But they exist as purely cosmetic changes, allowing The Exorcist and Lethal Weapon to understand what made their originals successful (disturbing horror and a strong buddy cop dynamic, respectively). The important thing for this kind of remake, then, is surprise! basic storytelling, and a good storyteller knows how to avoid distracting the audience with, say, bland characters and unnecessary sexism. Even in 2016, narrative competence is the ultimate Lethal Weapon.