With Lights Out, a gripping new series about a middle-aged boxer who may not be as washed-up as he seems, FX continues to redefine the notion of a TV hero. Far from a Rocky road to redemption, with the forced uplift that implies, Lights Out goes much darker, so much so that at times you may feel you need a flashlight to watch.
If it weren't for bad luck, there would be no series. At least that's the impression you get upon first meeting Patrick "Lights" Leary, a former heavyweight champ who's been out of the ring for five years at the urging of his wife. (We first see him suffering the effects of a concussion, face pounded like ground meat, in the wake of a title fight that many felt should have gone his way. It was, up to now, his swan song.)
Update to the present, and "Lights" is confronted with a litany of financial, familial and physical woes that pile up like the trials of Job. Is there no way out? Anyone who's ever seen a boxing comeback story knows the answer to that question. But rarely have we seen it told with this much nuance and emotional power.
As "Lights" Leary, heretofore unheralded character actor Holt McCallany grabs the role of a lifetime and conquers it like a champ. He is the antithesis of the stereotypical boxer. Slow to anger, sorrowful as he contemplates the wreckage of his fortune and the bleak nature of his prospects, he is poignant and delicate in his domestic dealings with his med-student wife and especially his three daughters. (Middle child Daniella, a precociously serious sweetheart who can't stop worrying about her dad, is played by scene-stealing heartbreaker Ryann Shane, who comes off like a young Jennifer Garner.)
The supporting cast, typically for FX dramas, is superlative, including Pablo Schreiber (The Wire) as his hot-headed younger brother Johnny, who has managed the family's finances into the ground; Stacy Keach as his dad, a former boxer who runs the money pit of a gym that hasn't seen a winner in a long while; and as players in the corrupt world that keeps drawing "Lights" back into the game, Reg E. Cathey (another Wire alum) as a swaggering promoter and Bill Irwin as a shady entrepreneur who takes a special interest in Leary's fortunes and misfortunes.
Running this show is former In Treatment executive producer Warren Leight, who won a Tony for Side Man, a play that showed as much empathy for its wayward musicians as Lights Out does for a group of broken characters literally fighting for their lives.
There's little here of the dark irony or twisted melodrama you tend to associate with FX's adult dramas. Lights Out delivers a sucker punch of downbeat realism as Leary takes a pounding from life but refuses to give up. McCallany brings such a weary dignity to the role you can't help but root for him.
Tuesdays at 10/9c are crowded with strong dramas: The Good Wife on CBS, the underrated Detroit 1-8-7 on ABC, and for those who prefer a lighter touch, NBC's Parenthood (at least for the rest of the month). Lights Out has its work cut out for it to find and hold an audience and deliver the proverbial TKO, but on the basis of the work alone, it's a triumph.
Lights Out premieres Tuesday at 10/9c on FX.
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