Lights Out review: Pilot

A new television drama series about boxing, from the house of FX. Paul checks out the premiere of Lights Out...

1. Pilot

As tempting as undoubtedly is, I will be attempting to avoid using boxing terminology in these upcoming reviews as much as I possibly can. I feel that, as a serious piece of drama, Lights Out reviews should be equally serious in nature, and filling it with a never-ending stream of boxing puns would be below the belt. 

FX’s new boxing drama, Lights Out, arrives at a time when the network is enjoying a serious hit streak. New shows Justified, Louie and Archer enjoyed extremely successful premiere seasons in both critical and commercial terms. Stalwarts It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and Sons Of Anarchy continue to be extremely popular, and even Terriers, which was a huge ratings flop, enjoyed tremendous critical success and garnered a devoted following that will surely ensure that it goes down alongside Wonderfalls and Freaks And Geeks as one of the great one-season wonders.

FX has now established itself alongside HBO and AMC as one of the unofficial ‘big three’ networks consistently pumping out quality programming, and this, coupled with the involvement of respected showrunner Warren Leight (In Treatment), means expectations for Lights Out are understandably high. So, how does if fare up?

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It’s good fun. Nothing seismic, but a certainly very entertaining 45 minutes of television. It sets up our cast of characters and the rest of the series nicely, and leaves you wanting to watch the next episode immediately, which is the best thing you can say about any pilot.

The hero of Lights Out is Patrick ‘Lights’ Leary (Holt McCallany), a former heavyweight champion who lost his belt in controversy when he refused to finish off a wavering challenger. Left mentally and physically exhausted by this, his wife Theresa (Catherine McCormack) persuades him to hang up his gloves for good.

But we all know how permanent boxing retirements last, don’t we? Five years later, Lights and his wife are raising their three girls in the ‘burbs of New Jersey. He divides his time between hanging out with his kids and advising up-and-coming fighters at the gym that he owns with his brother/manager Johnny (Pablo Schreiber, familiar to fans of The Wire as Nick Sobotka).

Halfway through the Lights Out premiere, however, things turn on a dime for poor Lights. It’s revealed that ‘Lights’ is flat broke, and so the news that his brother has inadvertently got them both in deep with the IRS leaves him with the threat of some serious debt. On top of that, his memory is beginning to show signs of decay, and a quick MRI determines that ‘Lights’ is suffering from pugilistic dementia, a long-term brain injury that may result in the early onset of Alzheimer’s.

It’s at this point that Lights Out shifts tonally and stylistically into something far more interesting than the fairly rote family drama/’coulda been a contenda’ hokum that characterises the first half, finishing with an extended sequence that recontextualises a number of events we have seen up until that point, and shows us the, until then, generally warm and gregarious Lights in a altogether different, erm, light.

Without giving too much away, there are parallels to be drawn between ‘Lights’ and another great TV anti-hero, Walter White (if you don’t who Walter White is, incidentally, would you kindly go and watch all three series of Breaking Bad immediately and I’ll meet you back here next week. Thanks). All three of the men superficially live the lives they lead in order to provide for their families, but actually carry out their more nefarious deeds in order to feed a compulsive inner darkness that they struggle to keep hidden from view.

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It’s an intriguing setup, and McCallany does an excellent job with the character (more on him in a second), but in a way it’s a bit of a pity that this is the narrative road Lights Out appears to be heading down.

While it’s been the source of countless movies both good and bad, Lights Out is the first television drama based around boxing, and to make it into what appears to be yet another character study of a violent man, a show that we have seen many, many examples of in recent times, feels like it could be a missed opportunity. The boxing industry is so fascinating and filled with so many larger than life characters that it seems a shame to focus mainly on just the one. A Wire-esque cross-section of the entire business would be truly be an interesting way of approaching this subject matter, but admittedly, a much harder sell. So, admittedly, it is easy to see why they haven’t gone down that particular route.

If you’re going to make a character study, then your lead actor had better be good, and thankfully, relative unknown Holt McCallany puts in a brilliant performance. First of all, he completely embodies the character of Lights in a physical sense, which is incredibly important in a role like this. You have to believe he could hold his own in the ring, and you do, thanks to his huge frame and hewn-in-granite features.

He can do the nuanced stuff just as well as the punchy stuff, too. The moment when Lights is informed of his impending brain damage is wonderfully underplayed by McCallany. In a nicely observed moment, he reacts with an almost amused resignation, with the expression of somebody who has been waiting his entire career for this conversation.

There is more than an echo of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler about both the character and the way that McCallany plays him, but if you’re going to copy someone, then you could do worse than copy one of the best performances of the last ten years.

The supporting characters are nowhere near as engaging. In particular, Holt’s wife is in serious danger of being just another Adrian, a mopey drag that acts as an unwelcome distraction from all the fighty-punchy goodness.

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I’ve got faith Leight won’t let this character fall into this trap, however, and first and foremost this episode is all about Lights, and as such, it’s a solid, engaging start to what looks like an intriguingly promising new series. It’s already got me hooked. Get it? Hook-ed.

Look, I tried, alright?

Follow Paul Martinovic on Twitter @paulmartinovic, or for more babble, check out his blog here.

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