The Way I See It 01.06.2011: 411 Reviews Lights Out Posted by Joe Roche on 01.06.2011
Our own Joe Roche has seen all 13 episodes of Season 1 of the FX boxing series "Lights Out" and he's here to give you his full review of this flawed yet entertaining show.
Next week FX will debut their newest original series, the boxing themed "Lights Out" which will have its debut episode at 10 PM on Tuesday, January 11, 2011. Thanks to my prestigious position with 411mania.com I was given access to all thirteen (13) episodes of the first season for review purposes and having watched each hour-long episode I'm left with conflicted feelings about the series.
First let's get the basics out of the way, "Lights Out" stars Holt McCallany (CSI: Miami) as Patrick "Lights" Leary, the former heavyweight champion of the world who retired from his in-ring career five years ago after a controversial loss to Richard "Death Row" Reynolds (Billy Brown) who happens to conveniently still hold the heavyweight crown. The rest of the cast is an assembly of Leary family members, and periphery fight figures. Pops (Stacy Keach) is the family patriarch and the man who trained "Lights" to the heavyweight championship. Johnny (Pablo Schreiber) is "Lights" little brother, who also happens to have been a great amateur champion who following an injury was put through business school by "Lights" and now manages his career. Outside the gym, "Lights" has his life dictated (literally) by his family, his wife Theresa (Catherine McCormack) and his three daughters. We've also got bit roles by "Lights" sister, who "Lights" bought a diner for, and Barry K. Word the Don King-esque promoter of "Death Row" Reynolds and ultimately "Lights" himself.
The performances in "Lights Out" are pretty solid all around. Schreiber as Johnny Leary is especially brilliant and his performance stands out above all others on the show. McCallany as "Lights" Leary does a solid enough performance in the role (though he's not big enough to be a convincing heavyweight champion), though we'll talk more about the character of "Lights" Leary later when we get into the problems that I had with the series. The most difficult characters on the show to stomach are Theresa (McCormack) and the Leary middle daughter Daniella Leary played by Ryann Shane. It's not that Shane is bad as Daniella because she does an admirable job, the problem is that the character is so insufferable that every time she shows up on screen you immediately want to change the channel. McCormack as Theresa Leary is equally insufferable and there are times during the season when you wish a Rita Morgan fate would befall her just to take her off the screen.
One of the main controversies that exist though out the season is the difficulty between "Lights" and Theresa. We learn that Theresa essentially demanded that "Lights" retire after his loss to "Death Row" Reynolds, she wanted him to take some time to himself, assuming that the family had enough money to be set for life, and she enrolled in medical school to become a doctor. Obviously if you've seen any of the commercials for the show you know that Leary has to make a comeback after some poor financial investments and other economic pitfalls befall his fortune and he's left without a pot to piss in (so to speak). Theresa is so hard up against Leary ever fighting that she become completely irrational. Again it's not McCormack's fault that her character is such a bitch (excuse the language) but she is, and the character's ridiculous arguments against Leary ever getting back in the ring, and her circuitous logic make the character tough to take seriously, even when she comes around.
Of course as with any show, the performances would all be lost if the source material wasn't very good, and this dear friends I regret to inform you is where "Lights Out" runs a-ground. Over the course of 13 episodes, season one of "Lights Out" provides moments of greatness. There are episodes, "Head Games" and "Rainmaker" to name two, that are as good (if not better) then anything on television. However, what "Lights Out" asks of you, the viewer, is to accept the premise that five years ago a white, Irish, American, heavyweight was the world heavyweight champion – and frankly as a boxing fan I simply couldn't get past that. It's not a minor detail, as a matter of fact it's the most major detail in the show and it's simply too much to get over. Do you know who the last white American heavyweight champion was? Rocky Marciano and he retired in 1955.
I might accept the argument that "Lights" Leary could have been a fringe world champion but the shows asks us to accept the idea that he was not just a world heavyweight champion, but THE world heavyweight champion and I'm sorry but it's a fact that I never got over from the opening credits to the final scene of season one.
Assume for a moment though that you can suspend your disbelief and accept the premise behind "Lights Out" that still won't solve all of the issues I had. My secondary gripe with the show is that it all seems a bit simple, for lack of a better term. I mean there is a lot going on in this show and in typical FX fashion the storyline threads running throughout the show piece together in terrific fashion. However, at times it does feel like the writers took a simple approach to much of the character development and storylines. I mean, financially strapped former champion, weasel manager (who happens to be his brother), ornery old trainer (who happens to be his dad), bitch wife, difficult children, devious mobsters, smooth talking promoter, flashy black champion – it's all here in spades. This is a problem that plagues many first seasons of shows, and seems to be highlighted by FX shows – think season one of "Sons of Anarchy" and "Rescue Me." The writers don't have time to add much depth to the supporting cast so everyone has a role to play, and sometimes it's just easier to make those roles the most simplistic form available. Where the writers truly shine is when they bring in supporting roles to really flesh out the plot.
Oh – since I brought up the plot, now seems as good a time as any to discuss that. I will remind you all at this point that I will try my best to reveal as little as possible during this phase of the review, but be forewarned you may find some spoliation here. The basic premise is solid, "Lights" Leary loses the heavyweight title to "Death Row" Reynolds in dubious fashion, his wife then asks him (well demands) to retire after the fight which he does, but for five years he is convinced that he won the fight, and Reynolds goes on to defend the belt some 13 successful times. After some poor financial planning (read: gambling) by Johnny, "Lights" is on the brink of bankruptcy and he is essentially forced back into the ring with his promotional rights sold to Barry K. Word. Obviously you can see where this is going – we're going to build up to the highly anticipated rematch between 40 year old "Lights" Leary who has been retired for 5 years, and the active and undefeated over the past at least 14 fights "Death Row" Reynolds.
That's a rough sketch of the plot line – however in true FX fashion there are so many subplots running throughout the season that you are left wondering how it will all tie together, and actually after the final credits roll you're still left bewildered by some of the events that transpire (no doubt setting you up for Season 2). I know I keep talking about "Sons of Anarchy" but it's easily my favorite FX series, and may be my favorite show on TV and a lot of that has to do with the writing. One of the things that SOA does so well is to put the main characters in a situation that appears to resolve itself only to leave them stranded with a new problem. "Lights Out" does a very similar thing which leads from one storyline to the next until the final resolution of the season which really isn't a resolution at all but merely a moment in time to keep you wondering how this scenario will play itself out.
The one aspect of "Lights Out" that you have to remember when the series starts next week is that the show takes a little while to get moving. This is a problem for all shows first seasons, and again I go back to Season One of Sons of Anarchy which never really took root like the second season did. It's just hard to establish characters and plot lines while also being edge of your seat exciting, but if you give "Lights Out" a few weeks to take hold (somewhere around the fifth episode) the show does hit a nice string of episodes that are enjoyable with solid writing and good performances.
But beyond the questionable character development, and the white, Irish American heavyweight champion there is a third problem with "Lights Out" that may present the most difficulty in being overcome. In a show about boxing, the boxing is terrible.
That statement deserves a second paragraph because it is so apt…the boxing in "Lights Out" is terrible.
It's a weird problem to have in this show because much of the boxing footage actually takes place in the gym, and the training and the sparring is actually solid. But for whatever reason when the fighting transitions into the ring, it all falls apart. There are two in-ring fights in Season One of "Lights Out" and they are both done poorly. It makes no sense that people have such a hard time filming boxing for TV and/or movies, I mean these people do realize that there are hundreds of bouts every year taped and shown on television right? How hard is it to just do that? The camera angles in the fights stink, to the point where they take you right out of the fight – why show us the fight from below the bottom rope when you'd never see that on TV and furthermore the in-close angles help highlight how terrible the action is. Never once in either of the fights you see "Lights" engage in do you think he could EVER possibly be a world heavyweight champion…and that's a problem when you're asking me to buy into a slugging, white, Irish American heavyweight as the former heavyweight champion in the first place.
We're told that "Death Row" Reynolds has developed into a sort of Floyd Mayweather Jr., type with speed and power during the five years that "Lights" has been out of the ring, but when we see him in the ring he's wild, predictable, and frankly awful. Every punch is a haymaker, every haymaker comes from ten feet away, everything is a bomb, there is no discipline, there is no…well there is no flow of any type.
And this is the biggest problem that "Lights Out" runs into – the fact that the show just isn't that believable. The boxing isn't believable enough to get past the unbelievable premise. I understand that twelve rounds of heavyweight boxing is tough to turn into a hour long drama but boxing is more than just wild haymakers, the production team would have done well to remember that.
It's not all bad though – actually there are aspects of "Lights Out" that could and should be the foundation of a great television series. Boxing is a crazy sport, anyone who has been around it for any amount of time would tell you that. The personalities of the people involved in the sport are second to none. The character of Barry K. Word has unlimited potential, Hal Brennan as the shady, behind the scenes character is good, Johnny Leary is such a great character that he deserves more time to flourish in his loser brother slash handyman slash agent role, and "Lights" has so much going on at the end of the final episode that it'd be a shame to not see how the writers pull this one out. Fight promotions is a great subject for a television show, the interactions in the gym is solid fodder, the fighter/trainer relationship, the fighter/family dynamic…it's all fertile ground for television and something that we haven't seen before.
In one early episode the Leary Gym has a fighter on the cusp of a world title shot, and the episode arc follows Johnny as he does everything he can to get the fighter the shot, and then everything that goes into getting a green fighter way in over his head prepared for the chance. It's a great episode, easily the highlight of the early season and the way the conflict "resolves" itself is perfect behind the curtain type writing. I don't want to spoil it for you but the Omar story arc is beautifully done by the writers.
In the end this is what you're left with – a new idea for a television series that needs time to percolate. Sons of Anarchy was given a second season even though the first struggled to take hold with fans, and Season Two was the best season of TV since The Wire went off the air. "Lights Out" is a flawed show, and much like shows like "Prison Break" it may have written itself into a corner from the very first second of the first episode – but through all its flaws there is still a good show here. The early part of the season struggles a bit to get going, but if you're not hooked from about episode 9 through every moment of episode 13 until about the last ten minutes then I don't know what to tell you. The writing is good (it gets better later in the season), the performances are not bad and if the purpose of the children and wife of Leary is to make you hate them with a burning passion, then the performances are amazing, and the show manages to keep you coming back for each episode, which is more than you can say for Detroit 1-8-7.
At the end of the day I would recommend that you tune into "Lights Out" on January 11th and stick around until at least "Mind Games." If you're not sold on the series by that particular episode then you're free to bail, but don't leave after the first episode because you will regret missing what is at the end of the day a flawed, but entertaining show.