FX needs to seriously consider changing its network slogan from “FX has the movies” to “FX has the incredible original programming featuring badass Caucasian men.” With “The Shield,” “Rescue Me,” “Sons of Anarchy” and “Justified,” the channel’s trademark is to develop dramas with tough hombres for protagonists whose mere glare would make Don Draper pee his pants. “Lights Out” is the latest addition that, based on its spectacular pilot, will soon join the pantheon of great, gritty FX dramas. Let the boxing puns commence.
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The premise of “Lights Out” is a blend of “Breaking Bad” and “Rocky Balboa,” and the familiarity of the plot is its only glaring flaw. The show features Patrick “Lights” Leary (Holt McCallany, “CSI: Miami”) a former heavyweight boxing champion, who, in retirement, has found himself repeatedly against the ropes. Though Leary pretends to be content with his life as a stay-at-home dad — and in some ways, he is — the pilot of “Lights Out” unearths all of Leary’s regrets and resentments in one fell swoop, bringing the once all-powerful giant to his knees. Poor financial investments have ripped a hole in Leary’s bank account and a gloomy medical diagnosis has left him with an uncertain future. Add to that the five-year anniversary of his humiliating final fight, and the man who once considered himself invincible is now left utterly neutered, unable to provide for his family.
Like Walter White in “Breaking Bad,” Leary is then given a golden opportunity to solve all his problems — a boxing rematch with a $10 million payout. Considering his health, familial obligations — his wife forced him to quit in the first place — and thirst for former glory, this is a decision that Leary will struggle to make, setting the stage for the rest of the season.
McCallany’s portrayal of Leary is a total knockout and essentially the reason why “Lights Out” brims with such tremendous potential. The greatness of the pilot involves seeing how much the characterization of Leary subverts expectations. This Hulk of a man — supremely intimidating and vicious in the boxing ring — is shown to be a warm, caring, endearing man outside of it.
But great shows like “Mad Men” don’t entirely explain their protagonists immediately — layers are slowly peeled back throughout the season. “Lights Out” does the same, shrouding Leary in a ring of ambiguity. Questions run amok — it’s unclear if Leary actually resents his wife for demanding his retirement. And most importantly, Leary’s motivations are uncertain — does he really miss the action of his former career or is he only considering a comeback to support his family?
Don’t come to “Lights Out” expecting a lot of action — it’s not a show about boxing, but about a character who used to box. The show’s violence is relegated to sudden, short flashbacks that are tightly edited and highly effective. The main thrills of “Lights Out” come instead from observing Leary’s interactions with his family — the most organic since “Friday Night Lights” — and trying to understand his moral code. Is Leary going to beat the tar out of the drunken yuppie that disses him? Or will he just walk away?
The pilot of “Lights Out” is a magnificent compilation of every element that makes great TV great. At once, it is a character study of a fascinating has-been, a highly entertaining hour of television (it’s funny too!) and a love letter to a once-glorious, now mostly irrelevant sport. In an inarguable decision, “Lights Out” is already one of the best shows on television.