“Everybody loves a comeback,” brags the ad for FX’s new boxing drama, Lights Out, and that may very well be true. But it’s a double-edged fist, so to speak: We know where the story is going, the characters are archetypal, and there are few real surprises in the first five episodes. The show revolves around heavyweight champion Patrick “Lights” Leary (Holt McCallany, whose wide-lidded eyes and rough jaw make him look like he’s seen a few fights in real life), a likeable underdog who’s fallen on hard times. He’s got a gruff, fatherly trainer who, in this case, is actually his father, affectionately and respectfully called Pops (Stacy Keach). He’s also got a former-fighter/former-junkie/current-fuck-up for a brother, Johnny (Pablo Schreiber), a la The Fighter.
But while it may be hard to believe that creator Justin Zackham has any tricks up his sleeve (his only other notable credit is writing the bland 2007 film The Bucket List), his co-writer, Warren Leight, is known for crafting the superb dramatic tension of In Treatment, and FX has gotten better at turning by-the-book premises into off-the-rails thrillers (like the unfortunately cancelled Terriers and the excellent Justified). Additionally, as a TV series, Lights Out has the time to linger beyond the ring and the locker room, casting a grim light on the limited options of bankrupt athletes (celebrity bingo, local Mattress King commercials) and on the increasingly bottom-line driven politics of fight promotion, courtesy of the slick and cutthroat Barry K. Word (Reg E. Cathey). There’s no rush to get to the so-called “main event”; consequently, every scene is treated as a main event. The current economic collapse offers a further parallel for the recent decline of boxing as a sport too, a motif that the writers highlight by forcing Lights into an MMA cage match that uses his aging body as a metaphor for the decline of the sport.
In addition to returning to his beloved career after a five-year hiatus, Lights is having nightmarish dreams about the results of his CAT scan (which reveal him to have the initial symptoms of pugilistic dementia); he’s fighting with his wife, Theresa (Catherine McCormack), who can’t stand to see him hurt; and he’s torn between the needs of his superficial older daughter, Ava (Meredith Hagner), the guilt trips of his braniac middle daughter, Daniella (Ryann Shane), and simply being a responsible father to his youngest daughter, Katie (Lily Pilbald). Complicating this is his new relationship with a corrupt bookie, Brennan (Bill Irwin, magnificently forking his tongue), for whom he has done some questionably legal enforcement work—all in order to maintain the illusion that he’s financially stable after his brother’s ill-advised gambling and investments lead to a tragic audit from the IRS. On any other show, these plots might overwhelm the show; here, they’re boiled down as fuel for the necessity of Lights’s comeback, for he sees himself as the quintessential Man of the House, and when Theresa asks him, “You need to fight? Or you want to?” he answers immediately with “Both.”
All this is still fairly conventional, especially for the sports-drama genre. Where the show gets a leg up is in its editing, which splices between his aggressive training and tranquil family life. The pilot episode is filled with jump cuts of Lights’s last fight, which serves to belie his claims that he “hardly even thinks about it,” and his potential memory problems—from all that head trauma—present in scenes that are jumbled out of chronological order. This technique comes to a head in a series of three distinct scenes in which “Que Sera Sera” is played: Katie’s ballet recital; a child’s party, which Lights is attending in order to make a payoff to the friend of the A.D.A.; and the cold-blooded assassination of a thug who threatened to interfere. It’s a technique that unfortunately tapers off by the third episode, but it shows a certain level of inventiveness and energy that the show’s going to need to succeed. Half of boxing, after all, is about the lightness of the footwork.
Lights Out has left itself plenty of room to grow, and it’s in no danger of exhausting itself by the end of the first round. Short sub-arcs follow the ancillary characters, usually to teach a moral lesson or to remind Lights and his family of their own pasts. When their gym’s up-and-comer, Omar Assarian (Pedro Pascal), has a title-shot opportunity, the question of whether he’ll end up letting the fame go to his head is played against memories of Lights’s first big break. There’s also a wide cast of minor characters who hint at larger stories to come: A sports reporter (Ben Shenkman) who keeps showing up at the most inopportune moments was apparently the nerd that Lights, the jock, protected throughout high school.
The characters in Lights Out might say things like, “Integrity, are you kidding me? This is boxing. We’re going to do whatever we have to do, all right?” The show’s creators, on the other hand, don’t take shortcuts to satisfy those who came just to see some hard-hitting action. Lights Out isn’t a knockout, but it’s got enough grit and sweat to keep viewers on their toes.