‘Lights Out’ – ‘Sucker Punch’: Mama said knock you out

Senior Television Writer
03.29.11 29 Comments


“Lights Out” fans got some bad but predictable news last week when FX decided not to order a second season. (FX president John Landgraf offered some thoughts about why.) But we still have these last two episodes to watch and discuss, and I have a review of tonight’s coming up just as soon as I find a little Long Island for my iced tea…

“A lot goes on in a family before a fight.” -Lights

Even before I knew for sure this would be the last “Lights Out” episode ever (and with these ratings, I think we all pretty strongly suspected what was coming), I initially questioned the timing of the main “Sucker Punch” story about the return of Lights, Johnny and Margaret’s mother, Mae (played by Valerie Perrine). After all the build-up to the Death Row fight, after all the tensions between Lights and Death Row, and Lights and Barry, and Lights and Brennan, and Lights and various relatives, on the eve of the big moment the season has been building towards… this is the time to introduce a character who’s only been mentioned briefly, many many episodes ago?

And yet in the end, I was awfully glad they did it. The cancellation news finally broke my watch-one-episode-per-week resolve, and while I won’t spoil anything about the finale, it does a fine job of dealing with most of the series’ larger issues (and, like the “Terriers” finale, almost works better as a series-ender than it would have as the close of the first of many seasons). But even before I’d watched the finale, I felt like “Sucker Punch” was worth it for reminding me of why I was drawn to this show in the first place, and that’s the performance by Mr. Holt McCallany.

I feel like McCallany’s work has gotten lost over this last chunk of episodes – not that he’s gotten appreciably worse, but because the show has been busy bringing in the flashy likes of Eamonn Walker and David Morse, beefing up supporting characters like Barry, Brennan and Death Row, and loading on a whole lot of plot. And all of that’s been necessary to varying degrees. But before Lights started his comeback, before Barry and Brennan were more than shadowy figures, before all the rest of it got so busy, the clear main attraction was in seeing this journeyman actor who had previously been consigned to henchmen roles demonstrate the reserves of screen presence, charisma and pure acting chops that none of his previous projects had come close to tapping.

I think back to scenes from the pilot like Lights crashing the dentist’s lunch, or Lights taking Katie out for ice cream and I feel like that was the heart of the show: this big, strong, perceptive, sensitive, vulnerable guy. And watching McCallany play a Lights who is so desperate for his mother’s latest journey through the 12 steps to be sincere was a reminder of just how great he’s been, and how much I hope he doesn’t just go back to playing henchmen now that this hasn’t worked out, and what a compelling character Lights has been when the show just pauses for a breath and lets us watch him.

Mae’s return also provided plenty of good material for the rest of the family – Pops throwing himself even more deeply back in love with her (and yet able to accept the latest betrayal quicker and easier than Lights can), Johnny drinking just to get by, and Margaret refusing to acknowledge Mae’s existence until forced to at the hospital. Lights’ father and siblings haven’t been shown in the most flattering light this season, and particularly during the Ed Romeo episodes, but seeing the number Mae works on all of them, it’s a bit easier to understand the us-against-the-world hivemind they’ve developed.

Ideally, “Sucker Punch” is the sort of episode we’d have gotten midway through the second of many seasons. But 13 episode is unfortunately all we’re ever going to get of this show, and it felt like both an important piece of the puzzle and a fine showcase for the series’ underappreciated leading man.

Some other thoughts:

• Someone on Twitter joked that the Leary house is the opposite of the TARDIS on “Doctor Who,” in that the exterior looks so much bigger than the interior, where the only rooms we ever seem to see are the kitchen/study area, Lights and Theresa’s bedroom, and Lights’ home office. It’s the reality of a TV series budget, but it also plays out like another reminder of how silly it was for the family to be living so above their means for so long.

• Good work by whoever came up with the look of the fake talk show where Lights and Death Row repeated square off. Felt very much like the kind of shows that unfortunately take up far too much airtime on ESPN, Fox Sports, etc.

• Warren Leight’s father was a jazz musician (who provided the inspiration for Leight’s Tony-winning play “Side Man”), and I suspect Leight was the one who provided the episode’s funniest line, Mae’s retort to Theresa’s question about the musician she left Robert for: “Not a musician; a drummer. It was a lateral move.”

What did everybody else think?

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