I wanted to like “Lights Out,” FX’s new boxing drama. I really did. Coming off the stunning creative success of “Terriers,” and lesser victories like “The League,” the network has built up some good will. But two episodes in, it’s apparent that the show is fighting outside its weight class.
“Lights Out” carries a heavy burden from the outset, as it has two handicaps it must overcome — it’s not only a sports drama, which is difficult enough to pull off (there’s a reason “Friday Night Lights” is the only successful sports-based TV series in history), it’s a boxing drama. Boxing is so overdone as a dramatic conceit that it feels like every possible plot, angle and emotion related to the sport has been played out. Boxing films are like Mafia films — they’ve been run into the ground and probably been done as well as they can be done. But “Boardwalk Empire” showed that it’s still possible to make a quality TV series based on the Mob — albeit one that never feels very original. Could “Lights Out” do the equivalent for boxing-based drama?
And it’s really not even close.
There’s a reasonably interesting premise at the heart of “Lights Out,” and it’s one that could have made for at least a compelling season with good execution. Patrick “Lights Out” Leary is a former heavyweight champion who retired (prematurely, in his mind) after losing the title in a controversial decision. He was battered in the match, and his wife gave him a me-or-fighting ultimatum. He chose his wife, and –five years later — he’s living in a McMansion with said wife and three daughters. He owns a shitty gym, and his manager/brother has him involved in some real estate investments. He deals with post-concussion syndrome. He learns he’s broke (It’s 2011! The economy is bad!) He takes humiliating side jobs to make ends meet (bingo caller, loan shark muscle). He considers a well-compensated comeback fight.
Nothing too mind-blowingly original there, but with the right writing and the right cast, it could have been fairly involving.
Unfortunately, in addition to the champ, we’re given these stock supporting characters:
- The loving wife who can’t quite understand the beast within her husband
- The Brian Dennehy-esque father/coach
- Nick Sobotka doing his best to bring something new to the role of slimy brother/manager
- The daughter who can’t bear the thought of her father missing her ballet recital (for reals; this is presented as a legitimate conflict)
Even more than that, though, there are two enormous problems with the show that probably render it a non-starter:
1) The Rocky Problem — Anytime you make a boxing show about an aging white heavyweight, the connotation to the Italian Stallion will be inescapable. (Making the lead Irish instead of Italian isn’t fooling anybody.) But worse, it seems that the “Lights Out” writing team went on a creative retreat to a cabin somewhere where they watched “Rocky V” and “Rocky Balboa,” and decided, “Shit, those are really good movies, but we can do even better!”
So many motifs and plot points are stolen from the later Rocky films that you keep expecting Balboa himself to come walking around a corner and challenge Leary to a battle of the washed-up, brain-damaged, Jerry Quarry wannabes.
- Both the Rock and “Lights” have the same role in their community — lovable, stupid lugs beloved in a condescending way by most of the locals, yet must occasionally suffer indignities at the hands of fools.
- Both are involved in a street fight outside a bar — although as far as we know, the guy “Lights” fights doesn’t have AIDS.
- Evil, Don King characters appear in both — though the “Lights Out” version plays more like Jackie Chiles than King.
- Rocky and Leahy are both redeemed by the love of a good woman who doesn’t want them to fight.
- Judging from the coming attractions for the rest of the season, both make ill-advised but ultimately redeeming comebacks.
It’s understandable that rather than try to escape Rocky’s Philadelphia-sized shadow, “Lights Out” tried to steer into the skid and pay homage, but they overdid it, and they chose the wrong Rocky movies to emulate. As a result, the show feels like a shitty, low-budget, serialized “Rocky VII.” If that’s what they were going for…
2) The Leary Problem — On a show like this, the lead character needs to carry the series. Everything centers around him. Unfortunately, both the character of “Lights” Leary and the performance of Holt McCallany are utterly without nuance.
Viewers are given no reason to like Leary, nor be invested in what happens to him. He’s not remotely likable — he’s a stupid ex-jock who lies to his family and yearns to still beat people up. The writers want us to think Leary’s position in life is poignant, but it comes across as pathetic. The character doesn’t do one admirable or likable thing over the course of the first two episodes, unless you count giving up his career because his wife made him, which I don’t. And that’s fine — characters as diverse as Tony Soprano, GOB Bluth, Stringer Bell, Nucky Thompson and George Costanza have proven that TV characters needn’t be heroic to be interesting. But there has to be something recognizably human in there somewhere, something that involves us. And with Leary, it’s not there in the writing.
It’s not there in the acting, either. McCallany seems to have mistakenly wandered in from the set of “The Bold and the Beautiful.” He’s a generic soap hunk who wouldn’t have been out of place as a Jake Hanson recast on “Melrose Place.” There;s no subtlety or subtext to his performance. If Leary is required to think, “I really want to hit this asshole, but I’m conflicted because I want to be a good person,” that’s exactly what you see on McCallany’s face — no less, and certainly no more. A gifted actor can sometimes salvage a poorly written character, but a weak actor only exacerbates the flaws of bad writing.
I refuse to grade “Lights Out” on a curve just because it’s better than standard network trash like “No Ordinary Family” or “The Cape.” It needs to succeed on its own merits, and it flat fails. I guess they can’t all be winners, FX. And I guess we’re going to have to wait a while longer for the next decent sports drama.
The show has given me just enough to watch another couple episodes to see if it improves and gains some creativity. The only remotely interesting thing it has going for it now is the ol’ watching-the-walls-close-in-on-a-guy conceit, and seeing his ways out disappear one by one. At this point, though, that’s not being done well enough to justify a series about it, and the character is not gripping enough for us to really care what happens when he’s finally trapped.
* For an alternate take on “Lights Out,” and particularly McCallany’s performance, check out my favorite TV critic Alan Sepinwall. It’s not often I disagree this strongly with The Sep.