[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “Lethal Weapon” Season 3, Episode 1, “In the Same Boat.”]
Wesley Cole says he “can’t ever replace” Martin Riggs, but Seann William Scott has already taken over for Clayne Crawford. Following a slew of production issues stemming from a fractured relationship between Crawford and Damon Wayans (which, unsurprisingly, ended with the more famous face sticking around), the Season 3 premiere kills off Riggs for good — as was strongly implied in last year’s finale.
Now, Fox’s “Lethal Weapon” TV show is back, and it’s a whole new ballgame… except it’s also exactly the same. The time-honored tradition of swapping out one partner for another has been executed by shows like “NYPD Blue” and “The X-Files.” Each has their own tricks to ease an audience into the new world, often based on how the beloved star departs, but the “Lethal Weapon” team made savvy decisions to appease everyone who’s (understandably) grown attached to Riggs over two seasons.
The change came as smooth and slow onscreen as it was rushed and noisy off it. With pressure to keep fans on both side of the conflict happy, the premiere episode faced a daunting task. “In the Same Boat” needed to introduce the new lead and hook viewers to his journey, all while explaining what happened to Riggs with the same comfortable structure of old — a case-of-the-week tackled with funny quips and solid action. A heated fanbase needed to be soothed, and aside from the #TeamClayne die-hards, fans may not have felt a marked absence in the return hour. That’s all due to the subtle art of swapping leads, and here’s how writers Joe Smith and Matt Miller pulled it off.
1. Make Seann William Scott Your Case-of-the-Week
Like many police procedurals, episodes of “Lethal Weapon” typically start with the case-of-the week. Some unlucky schmo suffers a hardship and then the hero cops step in after the titles to clean up the mess. The Season 3 premiere opens with Seann William Scott as Wesley Cole, a CIA special ops agent stationed in Syria. He’s cracking jokes with a kid who helped him trace a hard drive to this group of bad guys.
Yes, it’s immediately clear this kid is going to die, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is it’s impossible not to feel for a guy who blames himself for the death of a child, and that’s exactly how Agent Cole is introduced. Miller and Smith tie his scenes into the current plot by making both their tragedies set on the same day, and before the words “Lethal Weapon” flash across the screen, there’s only one human embodiment of that title alive.
But that’s how Cole is presented as an endearing figure, not why the episode goes down so easy. Audiences are used to seeing someone they’ve never seen before at the start of “Lethal Weapon” episodes, so it’s the structure that lulls viewers into a familiar world. That this fresh face turns out to be the new lead may be a pleasant surprise for anyone with their head in the sand for the last few months, but it’s not distracting whether you’re aware of what’s going on or not.
2. Seriously Mourn the Loss of a Lead
After he was shot by his long lost brother to end Season 2, Riggs is rushed to the hospital by his partner, Murtaugh (Wayans). But instead of a drawn out battle with death, the on-call surgeon goes from telling a distraught Roger, “We’ll do everything we can,” to a definitive “I’m sorry” in less than 25 seconds. With those two words, Riggs is gone forever, but the rest of the episode spends every extra second honoring his memory.
For one, Murtaugh’s entire plotline circulates around grieving. His family wants him to move on (off the couch and into the shower); his boss wants him to move on (off the force and into retirement); yet he’s stuck obsessing over a self-taught conspiracy theory that Riggs’s killer is still on the loose. Never mind the brother killed himself after killing Riggs. Murtaugh is convinced he’s on the right track, until he realizes what everyone else already knows: He’s keeping the case alive so he doesn’t have to process the death of his partner.
This leads to a mini-therapy session with staff psychologist Maureen Cahill (Jordana Brewster) and later to him baking Scott’s Cole for a promotion to detective. But not all is well with Roger. He’s still feeling the loss of Riggs, as is everyone else — as evidenced by multiple people telling Murtaugh, “We miss Riggs, too”. Damon Wayans doesn’t have to convince you he’s sad Crawford is gone, but he does have to make viewers believe Murtaugh is torn up over losing Riggs. The funnyman does an admirable job; so much so, it doesn’t feel like Riggs’ spirit is going away any time soon, even if it does feel like a giant step toward a new life.
3. Set Up a Definitive Future That’s Easy to Get Behind
That new life is pretty clear and pretty familiar. Murtaugh and Cole are partners now. Murtaugh is still sorting through his rationale to keep working, as well as the fear of losing another partner (undoubtedly). Cole, we’re told, is trying to do right by his daughter for the first time. He may have an ex-girlfriend to win back, and he’s really focused on doing well as a detective. Moreover, he’s trying to accept the idea that “chaos” follows him — a concept as beneficial for an action series as it is kinda silly for a straight-laced police officer. (Riggs being addicted to chaos was much easier to believe, given he was a self-saboteur who was quite possibly suicidal.)
Still, the dynamic is back in action. By the end of a tight 43 minutes, two cops are back on the case, all the supporting players are lined up to help them, and the narrative has worked through enough heavy drama to earn some laughs next week (while not setting all of the dark stuff aside, since it can still be used to drive future plots). Some may dismiss this kind of writing as an assembly line hack job; a bunch of writers trying to save the scraps of their series by bringing in a big name (for this show) and putting his character in the most empathetic position imaginable.
Sure, there’s some emotional manipulation going on here, and yeah, there are some leaps in logic you’ll just have to go with. (How exactly did Cole go from beat cop to detective off just the word of an aging detective everyone hopes will just shut up and retire?) But saving a profitable franchise is never easy, especially when some fans may only give “Lethal Weapon” one episode to see how they like the new duo. A lot went into the Season 3 premiere, and it’s pretty impressive how smoothly the results play out. Producers over at Warner Bros. TV may be fixing up a formulaic police procedural, but what they’ve done here is its own special kind of art.