It’s been more than ten years since a depressive mob boss changed the way we watch long-form television dramas, and while the format has since evolved in a number of ways, television producers continue to explore those demons that plague ambitious and powerful men. Lights Out, a new series from FX starring Holt McCallany as Patrick ‘Lights Out’ Leary, carries on that tradition as it tells the story of a retired boxer who took himself out of the game at the behest of his wife after a disastrous fight. Taking place several years later, Patrick now attempts to support his wife and three daughters, prop up his failing boxing gym, and suppress his own lust for the ring.
I was able to preview the pilot episode, which makes frequent references to the famous match against “Death Row” Reynolds in which ‘Lights Out’ failed to finish off his nearly defeated opponent, and wound up broken and beaten. This fight haunts the pilot from the very first scene, which takes place in the aftermath of the fight, as Patrick’s wife stands over his vulnerable laid-out form (subtly recalling the pilot for The Sopranos, when Carmela stood over Tony pre-MRI). Here the moment is set up as the emotional lynchpin for ‘Lights’ –the point of decision to put it all behind him that he will question for the rest of his life.
Pablo Schreider plays Patricks’ younger brother who maintains the former champion’s worsening finances and runs a gym kept open to please Patrick’s father “Pops,” played by Stacey Keach. As the IRS starts digging into his finances, his daughters’ tuition fees mount, and his investment opportunities shrivel, he is tempted by the chance to act as a high-dollar debt collector. The money is good, but pride keeps him from acting on it until there are no options left. Some good moments emerge from the situation, but the writers seem reluctant to back themselves into the corner of becoming a crime show, and open up an opportunity for ‘Lights Out’ to reclaim his former glory in the ring, while simultaneously presenting a frightening diagnosis that spells danger his mental health.
At the heart of everything is Holt McCallany and his performance of a man who cares about his family above everything, yet can not rid himself of the bruised pride his exit from boxing left him with. McCallany’s strong-jawed mug has appeared in TV and movies since Creepshow 2, with plenty of turns in the various Law & Order’s and CSI’s, and a memorable appearance in Fight Club (“Built a house!”). In Light Out he plays a man who is obviously dangerous and physically powerful, but it feels like vulnerability, pride, and shame are the real center of the character. McCallany’s face belongs on television and as sharp and intense as it is, stress, confusion, and regret project just as strongly. I personally hope Lights Out succeeds simply to keep Holt on the screen in a role he was obviously made for.
It’s easy and overdone to compare hour-long dramas to the influential show, but connections to The Sopranos don’t end with the first scene- the parental dynamic, Patrick’s lifestyle, an important MRI, a scene in the kitchen, the drive-by views of the city, and other subtle elements all the bear the mark of a series unashamed to allude to its successors. And in the same way that show (somewhat ostentatiously) bore the marks of the Scorsese films it was emulating in its pilot before quickly finding its own unique groove, I feel Lights Out has the same potential to break out of the mold and become a great show. The pilot is an excellent piece of television and deserves a spot on the queue of the screen, pod, phone, or pad nearest you when it arrives next year, presumably in January.
Lights Out, from Executive Producer/Showrunner Warren Leight (In Treatment) and Creator/Executive Producer Justin Zackham (The Bucket List), stars Holt McCallany (CSI: Miami) as an aging former heavyweight boxing champion who struggles to find his identity and support his wife and three daughters after retiring from the ring. Financial problems leave him at a perilous crossroads – battling the urge to return to boxing or reluctantly accepting a job as a brutal and intimidating debt collector.
Catherine McCormack (Braveheart) co-stars as “Theresa Leary,” Lights’ wife who is finishing her medical residency; Pablo Schreiber (Law & Order) as “Johnny Leary, Lights’ brother and business manager whom Lights put through college; and Stacy Keach (Fat City) as “Pops,” Lights’ father and former trainer who runs the boxing gym owned by Lights. Clark Johnson (The Shield, The Wire) and Norberto Barba (In Treatment, CSI: NY) directed the pilot episode. Phillip Noyce (Salt) and Ross Fineman are also Executive Producers. Lights Out is produced by Fox Television Studios and FX Productions.