Lights Out, FX’s new boxing drama, opens with Patrick “Lights” Leary lying unconscious on a metal table in the middle of a bare dressing room, just after dethroned as heavyweight champion. A fluorescent ceiling light hangs over him, illuminating his body and casting the room around him in shadow. His face is bloody and swollen and, if it not for the sweat still glistening on his bare arms and chest, he could easily pass as a bloated corpse awaiting a coroner’s examination.
Theresa, his wife and a physician’s assistant comes in, wakes him and begins patching him up, sewing up the massive gash above his eye and checking him for a concussion. But when Lights starts talking about the fight and a rematch, she gives him an ultimatum: “I love you too much to watch you die. Either you stop, or we stop.”
Flash forward five years to a nice life in the suburbs. Lights is an amenable, if occasionally absentminded, househusband. He’s put his wife through medical school. He owns a gym where his father, a fairly archetypal lonely, solo patriarch, is right at home training young boxers. His brother (who fans of The Wire will recognize as Nick Sobotka) is in charge of Lights’ finances and manages what little career he has left, booking the occasional interview and crap gigs like Bingo caller, while keeping an eye out for something bigger to come along.
But life is not as easy as it seems. The gym is failing without a champion fighter to boost its reputation. Combine that with a crumbling economy, the cost of Theresa’s medical school, some bad investments and a variety of problems for his brother, including a costly divorce, and Lights’ fortune has run dry. To make some quick cash, he takes a one-time job as a sort of white-collar bounty hunter for loan shark Hal Brennan and in these scenes, as well as those toward the end of the pilot where he spars with a mouthy, over-confident asshole outside of a bar, it’s obvious that Lights really does miss hitting people and his retirement might be shortened, especially since a rival fighter keeps publically calling for a rematch. Adding insult to injury, though—or vice versa I suppose—Lights learns that he has chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a form of dementia that could eventually develop into Alzheimer’s. A return to the ring could cost him more than just his marriage.
The problem with this kind of pilot is that so much must be accomplished in only 42 minutes. We need to know about Lights The Champion so that we get the full weight of how his life has changed since he retired. But we also have to learn about all of his current problems and the lengths he’s willing to go to make some much-needed cash. We need to get a sense of the relationships he has with his wife, three daughters, dad, brother and with a public that has largely forgotten who he is. On top of that, this is a show about boxing, and we need to see Lights fighting to know how much he really does miss hitting people.
It’s far from a perfect. Rather than chaotic, it’s actually a bit slow at points and Lights Out doesn’t stray very far from the basic mold of boxing dramas. But Holt McCallany gives a very solid performance as Lights, combining just the right amount of hulk and grit, with a more subtle compassion and empathy. He’s like a more articulate and thoughtful Stallone. He easily passes for a former heavyweight champion thanks to his size and physical presence, but it’s in the moments where Lights seems smaller, during conversations with his daughters and quiet, tense moments with his wife that McCallany shines.
At the end of the pilot, the story isn’t much further along than when the episode started: Lights says he won’t do any more work for Hal Brennan, he doesn’t have a plan for earning more money and tells his wife that, despite the rumors, he’s not planning to step back into the ring for a rematch. But we’re left with a lot of pieces in places and some strong potential storylines that could make for a very interesting first season.
Lights Out airs Tuesdays at 10pm EST on FX.