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Lethal Weapon - Dancing in September - Review: "Water Great Episode"



Almost no show comes out of the blocks at its very best. Dozens of shows that are now universally beloved only came into their own in the second season, having had the time to build some history between characters and to establish the particular tone and feel that makes the show unique, instead of leaning on tropes and ideas from the genre. In a way, actually, it's better for a show to make a flawed start than a perfect one, because there's something uniquely rewarding about seeing a show come into its own and shed its early missteps in real time.

That's what's happened with Lethal Weapon, which improved steadily throughout season one and has come out of the blocks fully formed in season two. Dancing in September was a confirmation of what last week's premiere suggested - that we're finally seeing Lethal Weapon as exactly the show it wants to be, with almost nothing lost in translation like in the very early days of the show. Lethal Weapon will never be rich and moving prestige television, but this episode shows how it has quietly become one of the most purely fun and joyful shows around at the moment.

The main reason why Dancing in September works so well, and contrasts itself so clearly from a typical police procedural despite the familiar plotlines, is that it's unashamedly character-driven. The machinations of the bad guys and the procedural details are incidental to a story that's ultimately shaped by the unique flaws, foibles and anxieties of the characters we've gotten to know over the course of the show's twenty episodes so far.

The show sometimes struggled to craft compelling and fully-realised cop stories in season one, and it's fixed that by acknowledging that the police work is basically background dressing to the people doing the work. It's the characters we're ultimately sticking around for, after all.

Before diving into the individual character arcs going on here, it's worth noting just how great the characters work together in Dancing in SeptemberLethal Weapon has steadily expanded out its ensemble as it's gone on, and that work pays dividends as Avery becomes further integrated into Riggs and Murtaugh's adventures and Murtaugh's family gets a plotline that only partially includes the father of the family, placing considerable emphasis on the relationship between Trish and RJ without using Roger as a crutch for character development.

It's not a perfect ensemble piece - Dr Cahill still exists only into relation to Riggs, frustratingly - but on the whole, Dancing in September is an impressive cast showcase that portrays a much more vibrant world than existed in the series pilot, one that exists well beyond the adventures of Riggs and Murtaugh.

It's Riggs' arc, though, that rises to the top. I like how the series feels just a little more serialised this year, with big events sticking with the characters beyond the events of an episode, and Dancing in September takes good advantage of this. Riggs' journey to Mexico is evidently going to inform the next stage of his recuperation this season, and it's pushed him into a really interesting psychological place here, which flips the script somewhat from last season - it's those around Riggs who are now trying to pull him back and remind him of his grief, instead of trying to show him a world outside of it.

It's a fun and interesting new dynamic to have, one that provides a welcome new spin on the therapy scenes with Dr Cahill, and it demonstrates a newfound deftness with the subject of mental illness and processes of self-deception and denial that the show lacked last year. Lethal Weapon's exploration of mental illness isn't in the same ballpark as something like BoJack Horseman, and never will be, but it's slowly acquired BoJack's ability to portray mental illness in a way that is both funny and sincere, tinged with sad dramatic irony at the inability of the protagonist to recognise the truth that's plain for viewers to see.

It's a step forward for the show that Riggs' grief has become more complex and individual than the generic man-pain it started out as, and that progress is complemented by the return of Agent Palmer to send Riggs' personal life into a newfound spiral. Palmer is an interesting character, because she's so often been defined only in relation to Riggs - at worst, as in a season one episode where she played a pivotal role yet never appeared, she's been a prop to make Riggs feel better and little else. Dancing in September, on the other hand, does a much better job of both justifying her place as Riggs' love interest and cementing her as a layered character with her own inner life beyond Riggs by showing the ramifications of her decision at the end of last season to show Riggs a classified file and foregrounding her own emotional struggles as she's left to linger with the consequences.

 It's unlikely that Palmer will stay around on the show on any permanent basis because it's hard to imagine a version of Lethal Weapon where Riggs is truly and sustainably happy, but for now, Palmer is a welcome injection of positivity given life by a fun performance by Hilarie Burton.

Murtaugh also had a busy week, sending his son off to college and coping with the arrival of an 'old flame' to the LAPD. It's the former plotline that clicks the most. The Murtaugh family have always been a worthy part of the show because of the lived-in chemistry between the cast and the light-hearted tone of their own conflicts, and Dancing in September's farewell to RJ is a clear example of the show's strength with this particular corner of its world. There's an intimacy to the scenes shared between Trish, RJ and Roger that's not quite equalled by, say, the scenes at the LAPD. In spite of the familiarity of the emotional struggles they're undergoing - worries about age, moving on in life - it never feels like Lethal Weapon is rehashing old material or just cobbling together old tropes. The Murtaugh family drama feels distinct and particular to this show, just as important as the police work that makes up the bulk of the hour.

Less effective is the story surrounding the arrival of Deputy Chief Santos. She's an interesting new addition, shaking up the show's status quo just enough to make things feel different (Avery is no longer a stern authority figure to be taken seriously, which is a good move), and Michelle Hurd plays her with enough wry humour to be enjoyable.

However, Murtaugh's 'connection' with her is a misfire of a plotline, taking a joke about 'finger lingering' that's funny at first but forced by the end, and putting Murtaugh's character in a weird light (it's not clear how his flirting with Santos sits with his loving relationship with Trish, as the show never even acknowledges that there could be contradictions here). In an episode that's more or less consistently funny and sharp, this was one comic note that just didn't really work, an example of Lethal Weapon's bad habits of relying on Damon Wayans mugging rather than clever dialogue or character interaction.

Dancing in September is a really fun episode, and one with much nimbler and less predictable storytelling than before. In spite of its minor flaws like the unrewarding Santos subplot, it represents a show that's found itself, and is using that self-knowledge to push the boundaries of what it can do in genuinely exciting ways. Two episodes in, and Lethal Weapon has barely missed a beat yet. This is going to be a fun season.

Overall Grade: A-

+ Strong Riggs subplot
+ As always, the Murtaugh family
+ Witty and humorous dialogue

- Inessential comedy Murtaugh subplot


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