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October 4, 2015

'Lights Out' Offers Ringside Seats in Boxer's World But Sometimes Lacks Punch

by Maureen Ryan, posted Jan 11th 2011 3:00AM
Despite some compelling moments, 'Lights Out' (10PM ET Tuesday, FX) isn't always an easy show to like.

For a drama about a visceral contact sport -- boxing -- it has trouble sustaining intensity from episode to episode, and it echoes a number of cable dramas about conflicted characters trying to hang on to their middle-class or upper-middle-class lifestyles.

And if you're expecting Patrick 'Lights' Leary to be a Rocky Balboa clone, think again. Leary, a former heavyweight champion who hasn't been in the ring for five years, isn't the kind of guy you instinctively cheer for.

He's not a bad man, but he keeps his emotions closely guarded. The Learys (Patrick, his brother Johnny and their dad) are known for "toughing things out," though all three former boxers have all been known to explode both in and out of the ring.

Lights' frequent inscrutability becomes a problem when he makes wrongheaded or selfish choices, which he begins to do more frequently in the second half the the show's increasingly dark first season. Holt McCallany, who plays the aging fighter, looks very comfortable in the ring, but the actor doesn't have the kind of charisma or innate likability that helps you forgive Lights when he gives in to stubborn or violent instincts.

Some aspects of 'Lights Out' are appealing, especially its devotion to boxing lore and its quietly effective observations about the perks and costs of fame. There are also terrific supporting performances from Stacy Keach as Lights' father and trainer, Reg E. Cathey as a wily boxing promoter and Bill Irwin as an underworld fixer.

But for every story thread that sustains some emotional momentum, there's another that feels pat and predictably resolved. A thread about Lights training a younger fighter offers an interesting contrast between the aging lion and the arrogant up-and-comer, and there's a compelling set of episodes in which Lights tries out a different training regime. But there are also physical and logistical setbacks for the boxer that begin to feel like mechanical stalling tactics.

Part of the problem is the "been here, done that" aspect of the premise. An aging, well-to-do man in northern New Jersey searching for relevance in a changing world? Sounds like 'The Sopranos.' Two men -- Lights and his brother -- in an increasingly desperate financial bind, one that sends them deeper into dealings with unsavory men? That recalls 'Breaking Bad.' Then there's the familiar trajectory of an athlete past his prime trying to stage an against-all-odds comeback. Those paths all feel somewhat worn, and the scenes of Lights' marital troubles with his wife, Theresa (Catherine McCormack), feel no fresher.

Yet every time Barry K. Word (Cathey), a charmingly duplicitous fight promoter, arrives on the screen, he gives a jolt of electricity to the proceedings, and Bill Irwin brings intensely enjoyable frisson to the role of Hal Brennan, a gangster from Lights' home town of Bayonne. Brennan has a cat-like charisma and a winning smile, but it's very clear that Brennan is a guy you never want to turn your back on. Ryann Shane also deserves praise for her performance as Daniella, Lights' smart middle daughter, who clearly inherited a lot of her old man's tenacity.

Watch the men of 'Lights Out' discuss the new show with Maggie Furlong.

Other characters don't fare quite as well. Johnny Leary (Pablo Schreiber) comes off as little more than the archetypal screwup brother, and Lights' wife, Theresa, is a familiar television type: The woman who exists to put limits on a man's behavior and choices.

Lights feels ambivalent about his own comeback; part of him likes punching people, but he knows he may be putting his future in jeopardy by returning to a risky sport. There's a similar ambivalence at work in the show itself, which examines the rough-and-tumble world of boxing with an intellectual reserve, without fully getting under its lead character's skin. And without giving too much away, the season builds toward a climax that feels inevitable, and that doesn't do much to increase the dramatic tension.

It's unfair to judge a network by its last show, but by the fifth episode of the late, lamented FX show 'Terriers,' I had fallen for that drama's richly realized world and was well and truly hooked. I watched 10 of the 13 'Lights Out' episodes that FX sent for review before realizing my verdict on this show would always be a split decision.

'Lights Out' isn't a bad show, but it's frustratingly uneven. It has its moments, but at this stage, it doesn't offer the kind of deeply fascinating and addictive portrait of human nature that we've come to expect from the top tier of cable dramas.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Tsk Tsk Maureen...reading this review and thinking, Jeesh she still hasn't gotten over 'Terriers' and sure enough I come to your "It's unfair to judge........" and Blam was I right. I really wish you and a few others who are still in mourning would just refrain from reviewing any new FX show until your little hearts heal. It's bad enough to have the hate-fest for Lights Out from the "regular" fans , but when TV Critics become so emotionally invested in a show, it's IMHO just the right thing to do and wait until you recover from your loss. I watched every episode of Terriers, (the only FX'er I couldn't get into was Damages), and although I enjoyed it, I always felt it was on the wrong network. How 'bout this... what if 'The Chicago Code' was on FX @ 10:00 and 'Terriers' on FOX @ 9 :00? Remove the S..T word so often used on Terriers ( for the 9:00 time slot) and no doubt in my mind slam dunk for a season 2. All I can say is I'm so glad 'Lights Out' is FINALLY here, I will watch with glee and if it survives or fails it will do so on it's own merit, and there will be no howling and wailing and blaming and boycotting. And, hopefully, no matter which way it goes, enough grown-ups will have walked into the room and this INSANE trashing of a show with hardworking talented people, who had nothing to do with the cancelling of 'TERRIERS'!!!! will END!

January 11 2011 at 5:36 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
George Otwori

FX bring back Terriers. Just Rerun the in summer 2011. With Terriers was one year ahead of the curve. Now CBS and ABC are both developing PI shows. J.J. Abrams is also shopping around a show called pulp. Which may have aspects of the noir and pulp fiction genre.

January 11 2011 at 12:46 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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