Monday, January 10, 2011

FX's "Lights Out" packs a major punch

In the opening minutes of FX's fantastic new drama "Lights Out," (premiering Tuesday at 10 p.m.) we're introduced to boxer Patrick "Lights" Leary (Holt McCallany) on a particularly tough day. His face has been broken and bloodied during a brutal fight, but Lights is less concerned about his injuries than the fact that he lost a fight that he should have won. He was robbed, he tells his wife, Theresa (Catherine McCormack) who is far more worried about the shattered state of his body. She can't go on watching him withstand this abuse. She won't watch him die. Either he quits fighting, or she quits him.
So he quits. It's a powerful, devastating scene and it automatically announces that "Lights Out" is something special.

The series, from showrunner/executive producer Warren Leight ("In Treatment") goes on to examine what happens after that fight. We see that, five years later, Lights has kept his promise to Theresa, and stayed out of fighting. He's been a good husband and a good father to his three daughters. But, his resolve is wearing thin. The bills are piling up, and, well, as they say, you can take the man out of the fight, but you can't take the fight out of the man. Lights is still an angry warrior who now has to satisfy himself with intimidating his daughters' boyfriends instead of opponents.
Lights' rage, financial troubles and the influence of his brother/business manager Johnny (Pablo Schreiber) and father (Stacy Keach) all combine to make talk of a comeback inevitable. "Lights Out" has all the elements of a standard boxing narrative, yet it still feels fresh -- mainly because Leight and his team keep the show from dipping into cliche. Lights isn't a retread of the dozens of fictional boxers who have come before him. He's his own man -- a fascinating, complicated mix of brutish bully and compassionate, loving family man. Even when he bullies, he can been gentlemanly and dignified, we see. There's a scene late in the pilot where, to earn some extra cash, he has to intimidate a man who owes money to a powerful "businessman," and he does so with with a smile so sincere it terrifies you.
McCallany, a veteran character actor, gives a stunning, star-making performance as Lights. He can convey volumes with a mere stare, letting us see all the rage, confusion and determination behind Lights' calm facade. He's matched inch by inch by an amazing supporting cast. Schreiber, best known from his work on season two of "The Wire," is riveting as the hustling Johnny and the always excellent Keach anchors his every scene as Lights' dad. McCormack is also excellent playing that well-worn cliche of boxing fiction, the unwilling wife. But, in "Lights Out," the character isn't merely a weak, whining nag who frets for the life of her husband. Theresa is strong, smart and embarking on a career of her own as a doctor. The scenes in which she begs her husband not to fight don't make her seem like a humorless scold. Rather, she's a woman whose work has taught her how much her husband is risking by stepping back in the ring. She speaks with authority and compassion. Thus, these scenes feel like excerpts from an actual marriage, not deleted scenes from other boxing dramas.
From top to bottom, "Lights Out" is an intelligent, exciting and well-made addition to the FX lineup, which has produced some real gems lately. Let's hope that, unlike the network's previous offering -- the equally excellent "Terriers" -- "Lights Out" finds an audience. Because this show is, if you'll pardon the cliche, a knockout.

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