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TV Tonight: Lights Out

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[Special spoiler alert: The following review mentions certain plot points that, at first viewing, I thought would be spoilers, but that FX’s commercials and promotions have abundantly given away–specifically, where the story goes after the pilot episode. I didn’t give away anything I wouldn’t want to know in advance, but in the event that you’ve avoided the ads and want to stay 100% unspoiled, stop reading.]

Lights Out, a very, very good new boxing drama, may not turn out to be the best series FX has ever made, but it is probably the most quintessential. There is a certain profile that FX dramas fit: testosterone; heated, usually violent conflict; a flawed, 40-ish male antihero who is motivated by deep loyalties; a warring family; a good dose of (often Catholic) guilt. Not every series fits perfectly—Damages has a female lead, Sons of Anarchy a younger one, &c. But Lights Out, with a middle-aged boxer tries to mount a comeback while beset by debt, age, shady connection and family demands, ticks every box.

This probably made Lights Out a perfect pitch for FX. It also sets up the possibility that it could be FX’s Boardwalk Empire: i.e., a series so precisely in the network’s wheelhouse that even if it is excellent, it is often excellent in exactly the ways you would have predicted. But Lights Out, from former In Treatment showrunner Warren Leight, proves able to switch up its punches.

As you know if you’ve seen the publicity blitz, there are plenty of body blows and histrionic confrontations. But unlike The Shield, SoA and Rescue Me–dramas with the metabolism of a hummingbird that set a trademark FX pace of piling showdown upon conflict upon twist—Lights Out also has a rewardingly brooding side, thanks largely to a quietly commanding performance from Holt McCallany as former heavyweight champ Patrick “Lights” Leary.

We meet Lights five years after his last fight, a brutal war that gave his title to newcomer Richard “Death Row” Reynolds (Billy Brown) in a controversial decision and may have left him with the first signs of “pugilistic dementia.” He promises his wife, a medical student, and his three daughters that he’s done. But half a decade later, Lights is pushing 40 and the money’s gone: some to an extravagant lifestyle; some to the support of his adult sister (Elizabeth Marvel), his boxer-turned-manager brother (Pablo Schreiber) and his trainer-father (Stacy Keach).

What to do? Lights is a soft-spoken, patient, gentle giant in private, but in the end what he knows how to do is fight. He has two options: use his hulking physical talents to do unsavory jobs for some unsavory connections, or put the gloves back on and give the sports world the rematch it’s been dying for.

You can probably guess which route this eventually goes if you’ve seen a second of the promos—or even if you haven’t, since in many ways Lights Out’s first season (I’ve seen all 13 episodes) follows the arc of a traditional boxing movie. One of those familiar elements is the portrayal of boxing as a sport that uses men up and throws them away: a heartbreaking episode introduces a former champ who’s taken too many punches, cheerfully oblivious that the sport has reduced him to an overgrown child.

There’s also a controlling, flamboyant promoter, Barry Word (Reg E. Cathey), who appears a cliché, right down to the hyperbole and rhymes (he chides two feuding boxers, “Save the mojo for the dojo!”), but reveals a deep sophistication and savvy. And as a boxing story about a white guy, Lights Out does not ignore the sports’ racial overtones; the sports world has cast Lights as a great white hope, while black and Latino boxers have been made into thug-like “characters” in the name of pre-fight drama. (Barry, who’s black himself, is aware and acidic about the racial theater and double standards of the sport, though he’s still willing to play along for business.)

Complicating Lights Out is the personal side of this story: who in Lights’ life is helping him, and who is using him? The Learys, a longtime boxing family, have ridden Lights’ broad back to the good life: he bought his sister a restaurant and his dad a gym, while giving this ne’er-do-well brother (a washed-out boxer himself) a career. You get the sense that Lights has carried so many people that he’s crumpling under the weight, and midway through the season one character powerfully suggests that his relatives are sucking him dry. And yet his family is also his fierce support. Keach in particular is spectacular in showing the stresses of being both protective father and hardass trainer; he can’t bear to see his son rushed into a fight he’s not ready for, and yet he can’t bear–none of them can–to give up the sport.

All this is melded together by McCallany’s subtle performance as Lights. Hulking and rippled–the few scenes I found hard to believe included those in which we’re supposed to believe he barely makes the heavyweight weight class–McCallany plays him like a man who knows that his body is a weapon, and spends his life assuring people the safety is on.

That’s not to say Lights is a reluctant warrior–gradually we come to see how much he loves and needs boxing. But he’s a patient, measured, calming force with his associates and in his marriage. And while he’ll also mix it up outside the ring when necessary (and occasionally when not), he also resists the shadiness he becomes involved in to extricate his family, especially when it involves an alliance with a sleazy ticket broker and fixer (Bill Irwin). As the prospect of his comeback conflicts his wife and daughters–it could save them financially, it could destroy Lights physically–his response is to take the guilt, the worry, on himself. Physically and emotionally, he’s a beast of burden, always ready to take on just one more load.

The Learys’ financial situation—Lights’ career winnings, which should have set them for life, were decimated by the market, and family, and life—are a commonplace of this kind of one-last-score story. But Lights Out also makes them timely, without ever hammering the point. Set up in a suburban New Jersey mansion they suddenly can’t afford, a yawning chasm of debt behind their prosperous facade, puzzled at how their good fortune just went, the Learys are not just like you and me, but they are a kind of stand-in for a country that seemed to suddenly wake up and find itself in debt.

The season often feels overstuffed toward the middle, and it fills time between the opening setup and the endpoint it works toward. As the show piled on the entanglements that Lights’ debt and shifty connections have forced him into, I got that feeling I sometimes would in the middle seasons of The Shield, where the series would pile so many scams, elaborate deceptions and near-misses on Vic Mackey that it seemed staggering he wasn’t in jail. The supporting characters are often stock, or, in the case of Death Row, inconsistent (he shows signs of depth, then flattens back out into a hiss-worthy villain), and the dialogue often feels like it could have used a second pass.

But it starts and finishes strong, and in between, it passed the most important test this non-boxing-fan could hold it to: when I finished one episode, I immediately wanted to put another in. However familiar, the boxing story works–the fight scenes are amazingly well-choreographed–while the family drama carries the show as the comeback story goes through the more predictable genre elements.

And it all builds toward a stunning final few minutes which I again won’t spoil, expect to say that they would work either as a season or (if the ratings don’t materialize) series conclusion, and that they serve the stories in and out of the ring equally well. More than just a boxing story, Lights Out is a compelling story about wondering whether you have it in you to take one more punch from life.