We start “Lights Out,” FX’s terrific new boxing drama (which debuts Tuesday at 10 p.m.), in the dressing room after Patrick “Lights” Leary has just been dethroned as heavyweight champion of the world. He is unconscious and looks like his face just collided with a freight train that was covered in barbed wire, sandpaper and bits of broken glass.
His physician’s assistant wife Theresa comes in and begins sewing up the hideous cut over his eye, and as Lights starts talking about how the rematch, she lays down the ultimatum:
“Please, Patrick, I love you too much to watch you die. Either you stop, or we stop.”
So Patrick stops. For five years, he plays dutiful househusband. He puts Theresa through med school, makes breakfast and drives their three daughters to school, sets up his father in his own boxing gym, puts his brother in charge of managing his fortune, and tries to enjoy a life where he’s not getting his brains beaten in.
But the ring has a gravitational pull on him, especially as his retired life falls apart. The economic crash wipes out most of his fortune. His brother’s in a variety of jams. The gym is a sinkhole without a champion-level fighter operating out of it. The boxer who dethroned him keeps calling him out in public for a rematch.
And then there’s this: though it’s not polite to say in most company, Lights Leary enjoys hitting people.
Very little of “Lights Out” feels particularly novel. Boxing movies have been around forever, and this set-up in particular has an awful lot in common with the unfortunate fifth “Rocky” movie.
But thanks to the sharp writing of Warren Leight and a revelatory lead performance by obscure journeyman actor Holt McCallany, “Lights Out” is a reminder of why Hollywood keeps making boxing stories. Because when they’re done well, they’re irresistible.
Leight last worked on the second season of HBO’s “In Treatment,” which would seem on the surface to make him an odd match for a show about an ex-boxer forced to do sketchy things to keep his family afloat. But Leight’s a fight fan who brought in a lot of fighters for research. And more importantly, the appeal of boxing has always been as much psychological as physical. Yes, we want to see large men beat each other up, but there’s a reason it’s called the sweet science. Ali’s strategizing against Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle, or the head games he played on Joe Frazier leading up to the Thrilla in Manila, are at least as famous as the punches thrown in those fights.
As played by McCallany, Lights is a thinker as much as he is a fighter. He’s not neurotic, not wracked with self-doubt or anything – he’s as at ease with himself as any lead drama character in quite some time – but he can take someone’s measure quickly. He has an enormous capacity for empathy. And when he hits you, it’s because he recognizes that it’s the best – and often only – path to getting what he needs.
McCallany’s been around a long time, usually cast in small roles in action movies where they need someone big lurking in the background. He has the size and grace to be a plausible ex-champ, but it’s the cool, quiet charisma that makes the show so interesting.
There’s a scene late in the pilot where Lights has a disagreement with a suburban dentist, and the man threatens him with a baseball bat to get him to leave. Lights smiles and says, “Good for you. Protecting your home.” There’s just the slightest whiff of condescension to it, but also the sense that Lights respects the guy more – even as he knows he could easily put him in a hospital, bat or no bat.
Leight has surrounded McCallany with a strong ensemble. Stacy Keach, who starred in one of the all-time great boxing films, “Fat City,” plays Lights’ dad, who’s aimless and sad outside the gym but still sharp within its walls. Pablo Schreiber (Nick Sobotka from “The Wire” season two) is Lights’ troubled brother Johnny, and the two characters walk an interesting tightrope between trust and jealousy. Bill Irwin and Reg E. Cathey have memorable roles as a pair of shady power brokers.
(Those two also, oddly, have a PBS kids show background. One of Cathey’s earliest gigs was on the educational math show “Square One,” and Irwin is, of course, Elmo’s neighbor/friend/figment Mr. Noodle. If you’re in just the right demographic, scenes with one or the other can be unsettling.)
As Theresa Leary, Catherine McCormack has the toughest job, because the role of the wife or girlfriend who doesn’t want her man fighting anymore is not only one of the biggest cliches of the genre, but one of the most annoying. Nobody wants to watch the wet blanket. But as a career woman, Theresa is tougher and more ambitious than this type of character usually gets, and early episodes reveal some things about Lights that makes it very easy for the viewer to side with her, even if it’s fun to watch Lights beat people up.
Because Lights is from a Jersey family that migrated from a city to the suburbs, because he and Theresa are dealing with teenage kids, because his (former) profession gets mixed up with organized crime, and because the family’s situation is in many ways standing in for The Way We Live Now, there are definitely echoes of “The Sopranos” here. They’re not the same kinds of shows – there isn’t that streak of black humor, and despite Leight’s background on “In Treatment,” I don’t expect to see Lights in therapy anytime soon – but there’s a moment where Lights pulls up to a McMansion that looks very much like the one where Johnny Sack lived, and I could easily imagine Lights and Tony existing in the same universe.
Now, mob movies are at least as abundant as boxing movies. The advantage “The Sopranos” had was that, as a series, it ran longer and could go deeper into its characters. “Lights Out” has the same things working for it. I watched five episodes of this show around the same time I saw “The Fighter,” and while that’s a fine movie with some great performances, I definitely feel more of an attachment to McCallany as Lights than I did to Mark Wahlberg as Irish Mickey Ward.
FX has been on an incredible creative streak lately. Last year, the channel introduced the US Marshal drama “Justified,” the animated spy comedy “Archer,” the one-man comic anthology “Louie” and the noir buddy detective comedy “Terriers.” All were great in their own ways, and three of the four will be back this year. (RIP, “Terriers.”) I can’t speak to the commercial prospects for “Lights Out” – though it seems to my untrained eye that it has a much more obvious hook than did “Terriers” – but qualitatively, it fits right in with the channel’s other recent acquisitions.
When Lights wonders why he keeps getting into so much trouble, Irwin’s character explains, “It’s this profile of yours. Makes some people want to test you.”
Though it’s not always easy, Lights has a way of passing those tests, and it easily passed mine, in that I can’t wait to see more of it.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org