In television, we’re always looking for innovation. So many of the new programs that make it to the airwaves are watered down, remade, reimagined or fairly generalized versions of things we have already seen. When something mostly original comes around, we tend to make a big deal of out of it (see: Lost, The Sopranos, Survivor). An easy criticism to make is that something is “unoriginal” or “derivative.” Most of the time, those kind of statements are made with a critical eye in mind. We don’t like things we’ve seen 1,000 times before.
Lights Out feels like a case to test those kind of theories. The new FX boxing drama is exactly what you expect it to be. I know people, including myself, say that all the time, but seriously: Lights Out is exactly what you think it is. It’s a series about a former heavyweight boxer who retires early to please his terrified wife and five years later, she’s now working full-time and he’s at home with little to do and not a whole lot of money to show for it. Patrick “Lights” Leary has no direction. He opened a gym after retiring to presumably keep active (and give his trainer father something to do), but it’s a financial sink hole and his brother Johnny has more or less messed up all the investments. Lights doesn’t really want to fight again, but along with his financial issues, he has a personal problem: He kind of likes hitting people. That’s all you really need to know and that’s all the pilot really is interested in telling you.
So yeah, Lights Out is more or less a better executed version of the last Rocky film with a little less blue collar-ness and no dead spouses. As of yet. Boxing stories are all sort of the same, but as we’ve seen with this awards season with The Fighter, good boxing films make people happy. They’re not usually about the boxing itself, but about what this simple, but vicious sport does to its competitors and their families. But the last Rocky film was only a couple of hours long and the same goes for The Fighter. Lights Out will be at least 13 episodes and presumably more of there is a second season. This is an extended telling of the traditional comeback story and audiences are going to have to decide whether or not that’s something they’re interested in (early ratings suggest not really).
That’s the question isn’t it? When do we decide that a really good execution of a story and its attached tropes we all know is something that’s worth praising? Nothing is fully original anymore, but there are certainly more innovative things than the Lights Out pilot out there on television. But still, this is a rock-solid introduction to this very familiar world. There is literally nothing to really complain about.
And yet, there isn’t a whole lot to really get up on my soapbox and praise. A solid execution of a familiar story is still just a solid execution of a familiar story, if you know what I mean.
If there is one revelation to take away from the opening effort from Lights Out it’s that lead actor Holt McCallany is pretty damn good in the role of Lights Leary. McCallany’s been a sidekick, henchman or random background dude in a lot of things, but he quickly embodies this role with ease. He obviously has the physical tools to present himself as a boxer, both in the past and the present, but he also has a really compelling warmth to him that I didn’t really expect. This episode doesn’t take too long to actually convince us that Lights really did believe in his decision to walk away and that he truly does care for his wife’s career and his three daughters. It’s not like he’s lumbering around the house completely disconnected from the realities that rule his life.
But at the same time, once reality starts to put him on the ropes — sorry, had to — something in McCallany’s performance shifts just a bit. There’s still an obvious fire in his gut when the right buttons are pushed and although he can give all sorts of heartfelt speeches to his cute youngest daughter about never hurting anyone again, he still kind of likes it when he beats up a few dudes. Lights is a simple man who has had to deal with his fairly straightforward life being stripped away. Boxing is simple, it has logic and rules and real life doesn’t follow that kind of pattern. When Johnny lets Lights know that all the money is gone, all he can do is sulk around confused because he literally has no idea how this kind of thing could have happened. He just wanted to fight, take care of his family, maybe open a gym and that’s it. Now, things are a lot more complicated and choices have to be made. Again, it’s not rewriting any sort of script on the boxing story, but if you’re going to do this story again, you need someone like McCallany at the center to make it feel real.
I’m sort of concerned as to how Lights Out will sustain itself over 13 episodes, but a lot of critics have apparently seen the whole season and therefore praised it even more. That’s certainly promising. But again, there isn’t anything new here, so the longform format could be a blessing and curse. Lights Out could easily meander for a while, delaying the inevitable fight between Lights and his last competitor, or it could meander in such a way that we learn some really compelling stuff about the characters. Both are on the table and I’m most certainly on board for the full duration. I guess I’ve decided that in this case, a good execution of a familiar story is just enough.