Lights Out debuts tonight on FX at 10 p.m. Eastern.
The boxing movie is popular because, on some level, it’s all about purity. The story is conflict boiled down to its very essence. Two men step into an enclosed space. They fight, both utilizing some iron-clad, ancient rules. In the best versions of the story, the ones everybody knows and can quote chapter and verse, one of them triumphs over the other, knocking the other down so he can barely move. In others, the fight is longer, a stalemate, but this gives an opportunity to talk about the uselessness of conflict or the power of a moral victory or whatever the writers and directors wish to talk about. But the idea is that we get to know these two men, even if we only get to know one of them as a force that must be opposed. Boxing is pure. It is essence. It is simple and understandable and horribly, horribly thrilling, in spite of all our better impulses.
But can you make that set-up into a television series? And, more than that, can you make it into a television series shepherded by Warren Leight, a guy known best for his work on Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Broadway? FX, which has invested heavily in Lights Out, with an advertising campaign that makes it absolutely clear at every given moment just what it is this show is about (sorry, Terriers fans!), is betting that drawing out the expected story of the boxing movie over 13 weeks is going to maintain its excitement that long, even though everybody in the audience knows where this is heading. There are two men, and they’ll get in a ring, and they’ll beat the shit out of each other. Along the way, FX hopes, Leight will get us to care about at least one of those men and the people around him, thanks to his skills with writing finely drawn characters.
How well does he succeed? We’ll have to wait to find out, but the pilot itself is certainly interesting for much of its running time, but not exactly a success. And then in the final ten minutes, Leight does something very interesting that makes wanting to watch episode two immediately after the pilot almost a foregone conclusion. (It’s here that I’ll say I’m pulling a Noel Murray on this one; I usually watch as many episodes of something as the network will send out before one of these reviews, but since I’m reviewing this show week-to-week, I’m going to watch them one at a time, to better mirror your experience, even though FX sent out the entire season, clearly feeling a bit excited about the show’s prospects. So I haven’t seen beyond the pilot, even though I’m intensely curious.) Before those final ten minutes, this is just a show about a former boxing champ who’s hung up his gloves and is now a devoted family man facing some health issues. In those final ten minutes, it becomes something much more, though for obvious reasons, we can’t talk about that just yet.
If there’s a criticism to be leveled at Lights Out in the early going, it’s that the show is perhaps a level or two too cerebral. Leight is wonderful at writing intellectual characters who puzzle through their own lives’ meanings. (My favorite of his credits remains the wonderful second season of In Treatment, which he was the showrunner for.) He’s perhaps not as adroit at writing an intensely physical man like Patrick “Lights” Leary, who’s at the center of the show. Tonight’s pilot, initially written by Justin Zackham but heavily reconceived by Leight when he took over (in a retooling process that took nearly 18 months), sets up the characters and situations, and it does so swiftly and cannily, but it’s difficult to escape the sense that you’ve heard this song before and that everything is pulled back maybe a step too far. It’s easy to find Lights interesting; it’s pretty hard to get into his head.
Part of this may stem from the fact that you’ve seen all of this before. And not just the boxing stuff. A certain engagement with the usual clichés of the genre is usual and expected for a TV show. Indeed, one of the great things about TV is the way it can re-energize these clichés and make us understand why we enjoyed them in the first place. Anyone watching Lights Out will almost certainly watch Lights get back in fighting trim for whatever big comeback match he inevitably fights in in the finale. We’ll almost certainly see him reconnect with his manager and trainer. And we’ll almost certainly see him mourn over how what he’s doing puts him at odds with his family. These are touchstones of the genre, and not stopping by them would feel a little wrong.
No, what I’m saying is that the idea of what the quality cable drama is has gotten just a bit ossified. In a lot of cases, there’s nothing wrong with this, especially if things are well-done. I’m as susceptible to this form of entertainment as anybody else in this profession, and the Lights Out pilot, while paint-by-numbers, has some strong moments, particularly in the final ten minutes. But, look, let me run down the basic setup of the show, and you tell me if you’ve heard all or any of it before. Lights is a blue-collar kinda guy who has been thrust into immense wealth, thanks to his fighting. He’s a warm guy to his beloved family, consisting of his wife and three daughters (who are seemingly just there in the pilot for us to see that Lights loves his family). And yet the one thing he wants to do more than anything else isn’t exactly societally acceptable outside of the ring. If he just walks around punching people, it’s a world of hurt, but beating people up is the only way he knows how to make money. To make matters worse, his wife is absolutely opposed to him getting back in the ring, no matter what. Yet the money’s running dry, and a doctor’s diagnosis has placed a ticking clock on his life. He’s boxed in, and the only way out is by going back to what he’s best at.
I think you see what I mean. Nothing Lights Out does is bad by any stretch of the imagination. It’s frequently very fun to watch, especially when either Stacy Keach or lead Holt McCallany (whose work takes a bit to get used to but should settle with most audiences by the end of the pilot) is on screen. These two actors are so nicely understated and give such great, fresh readings of the lines that the show is able to skate by a lot of its more bland setup moments. McCallany, in particular, is one of the more intriguing choices for the lead of a drama series in quite some time. He’s the physical personification of what we might think of when we think of a big, burly boxing champ, but he’s also got an unexpected wounded quality to him, even when he’s beating the shit out of people. Even if I hated the rest of the show, I might keep watching for McCallany.
The question, then, is whether there’s enough gas left in the old cable drama tank to get this show where it needs to go. Based on McCallany and based on Leight’s track record, I’m optimistic, and it’s not as though boxing is a setting that’s been exploited for a great number of TV dramas in the past. But that’s just the thing; too often, we critics treat a premise or a setting as a sign that a show is vastly different from everything that came before, when it’s really just the same thing in new clothing. I like the clothing in the Lights Out pilot, but I’m going to want to see something more, something that distinguishes this from every other show just like it, before it takes the step up from very, very good to great.