The boxing genre goes back a long time, and while sometimes missing the mark with cheesy acting or dialogue, there are often moments of poignancy that transcend the working class story so often told. The trappings of a boxer’s tale is known to every person on the planet who has seen Rocky, The Fighter, Raging Bull, et al. While the idea of a two hour film exploring a fighter’s troubled retirement and struggle to return to the ring sounds interesting (although Rocky V has some alternative thoughts on that issue), a weekly drama series feels like a daunting task to take on. FX’s new series Lights Out not only dares to try, it utilizes and breaks the clichés to deliver one of the best hours of dramatic television currently on air.
Lights Out begins with Patrick “Lights” Leary (Holt McCallany) lying bloodied on a table after a fight, looking dead. The unmoving brute is being attended to by his wife Theresa Leary (Catherine McCormack) and it’s in the first seconds of the series that we come to understand, as the viewer, that this man is beatable. He can be hurt and broken physically. This is important because otherwise the audience will view Lights as a superhero, and he is far from that.
The opening moment takes place five years ago, and is the catalyst that leads to Lights walking away from the ring. Theresa is going to work to become a family practitioner and feels it’s her turn to contribute to the family. Patrick is from a fighting family. His father Robert “Pops” Leary (Stacey Keach) was a former middleweight contender, and current boxing trainer. Younger brother Johnny (Pablo Schreiber) was a promising athlete himself, but the kid never seems to be able to get out of his own way. Patrick grew up tough in a working class New Jersey neighborhood and clawed his way up the boxing ranks the old fashioned way. Along the way he made a few million dollars, and has since put his wife through med school and his brother through business school.
What makes Lights Out work is Holt McCallany dwelling so well in the character of Lights. Solid writing and fantastic supporting acting can only carry a series so far, and in that this show could last a few seasons. But with McCallany there’s a quiet power to Lights that is endearing and menacing. A lot of this comes from Patrick’s diagnosis of pugilistic dementia, which leaves him sometimes forgetful. It’s often times as if Lights is stopping the moment for himself so that he can examine and make sure it is real, and then to have a proper reaction. That’s not all in the writing though, as we watch McCallany as Patrick come home to be a loving and protective father it’s clear that much of the character is born from the actor. He’s tender with his daughters, but still has that scary vibe when he’s sizing up a new boyfriend. It’s a nuanced performance that is quite astounding when you imagine the difficulty in finding a man who not only looks like a retired 39 year old boxer, but who is capable of hitting the emotional levels required of Patrick “Lights” Leary.
The show follows the Leary family through the eyes of Patrick. Lights spends his time calling bingo games, working at his father’s boxing gym (which is run financially by Johnny), and doing the odd job to keep his family in the home they’re accustomed to. The millions are all gone, and Patrick is desperate to make sure things stay normal for his wife and daughters. But the IRS is catching up, and there’s no money to be had. So Lights has to become the thug people most likely believe him to be upon first glance, despite being far removed from that stereotype, and in the process begins to get mixed up again in the boxing world.
Lights Out is superb television that breathes new life and emotional depth into an old and tired comeback boxing story. It may look and feel like Rocky when you begin the series. In fact the credit sequence features a 70s style theme song that took a while to grow on me, but also immediately makes me think of the Italian Stallion. The parallels between Lights Out and Rocky are indeed numerous, but after four or five episodes you begin to see that Patrick is not Balboa. Patrick “Lights” Leary has his own story to tell, and it’s one that you should tune in for.
Lights Out premieres Tuesday, January 11th at 10:00pm ET on FX.