On the Air chatted with “Lights Out” showrunner Warren Leight to discuss his FX boxing drama that, due to low ratings, won’t be making it to round two.
This post will contains spoilers from Tuesday's season finale. So be sure to watch before you read.
How are you feeling a couple of weeks later?
I’m still disheartened. When you’re in production it’s mostly about survival. You hope you’re doing good work, but it must be like med school or something. You hope because you’ve been well-trained that you’re getting through without killing somebody. That’s what production is.
I had great plans for Elizabeth Marvel and Bill Irwin’s characters and that relationship. I had interesting plans for Johnny reacting to his brother’s success, which is kind of what he wants and kind of what he dreads, and what was going to happen to that marriage.
But after that first week’s ratings you must have felt like it wasn’t going well?
It’s not like I couldn’t see it coming at all after that first week, but on some level, until they pull the plug, you’re always holding out. There was a lot of nice buzz, and we had the sense that we had done our job well and had a compelling season of television put together. FX is a good team, but was it the right show for that network? There’s a lot less violence. … It’s a show about a boxer, but there aren’t a lot of guns. That doesn’t get you past the teaser for “Sons of Anarchy.” The FX audience is young, male and action-oriented, and we had a strong family drama against the backdrop of boxing, but it only had three boxing matches the whole season.
Now I wish it was on Showtime. I think there were more stories to be told and the cast was only going to get better. I think I got better as the season went on. The first season is a high-wire act, a heavy lift and you’re still trying to figure out the story, the actors, how you shoot it and how you make it work. A lot of challenges were figured out, and now we know what we’re doing but we don’t get to apply that knowledge. That’s tough.
Looking back would you have done anything different?
We shot in a very naturalistic way. Should we have gone for a more glamour approach? What if it was a different poster, something that didn’t alienate women from the get go? I don’t know if it would’ve mattered, but I think Tuesday night at 10 was a mountain. It was up against seven strong reality shows and seven very good scripted TV shows. Five or six episodes in I said to FX, ‘Do you want to try any other time slot?’ I guess they can’t really do that on cable as effortlessly. I guess what I would’ve done differently is banned reality TV.
At the end of the day, the show without Holt (McCallany) doesn’t make sense to me. Even if you’ve had Mark Wahlberg starring in the show, Holt was the guy. Anything else would’ve screwed up the work, and I take solace in that. I’m proud of the series but that’s how it goes. I’m sad, but this is not a tragedy. There’s enough of those in the world. This is just sort of a, “Well, shit.”
I’d be glad to blame myself for doing something wrong. I kind of thought people could relate to this guy because we’ve all gone through a difficult few years and he’s gone through them but maybe people don’t want to think about that right now. It seems like the shows we were losing out to — the reality shows certainly — are kind of about escapism or about feeling better than these losers you’re watching, as opposed to identifying.
Obviously if you’re on HBO or Showtime, the critical response the show got is enough to sustain, but if you’re on basic cable the critical response just makes it more bittersweet.
Are other networks interested at all?
There all phone calls being made, some conversations going on. That’s tougher than it might have been a few years ago. The attempts haven’t panned out.
What went into the decision in the last episode as to whether he wins or loses this fight against Death Row?
Do people want to watch 13 episodes of unrelenting trial and tribulation for a lead and then have him lose? From a character point of view, Death Row doesn’t want it as badly. Lights has killed himself, sacrificed himself, compromised himself — done everything he can to get to this fight. Maybe he just wants it more. The other night with the Cleveland Cavaliers winning against the Miami Heat, how is that possible? They wanted it more. They had more to prove. They’d been embarrassed the last time.
We know about Lights. We know his character can take the punch and get up. His heart is never in question. He’s going to get hurt and get up. Is that the same for Death Row at this point in his career?
I talked to a couple of fighters who got off to slow starts and were outclassed and outweighed, but the guy didn’t put them away soon enough. These underdogs developed confidence as it went on and surprise you by the end of the fight. If you don’t put the guy away early, if you throw everything at him and he doesn’t go down, you lose confidence. And that’s what we wanted for that last fight.
We looked at a lot of different fights. One was the Marvin Hagler-Tommy Hearns fight, and there’s a moment when you can’t believe either of them is standing, but before that there’s a moment where it looks like Hearns is going to win. If you withstand that barrage, that other guy in a sense punches himself out.
With Lights there’s an intuitive intelligence to that character, and there’s a moment in that fight where he knows the momentum is shifting. In the six months leading up to the fight, Lights has been tested more and it strengthens his resolve.
I would’ve loved to see Eamonn Walker’s character, Ed Romeo, come back in a second season.
He was gorgeous. He would’ve come back and probably be training a guy who’s coming after Lights. He was a complicated guy. He left us wanting more, which is better than overstaying your welcome.
Would Lights have won if Eamonn had continued to train him?
I think one of the reasons Lights won the fight is that he internalized a lot of what Eamonn’s character taught him. There’s little references in the episodes after – there was stuff that guy gave him in the time they had together that he needed to hear. I don’t think a guy like that constitutionally could have separated from his family.
A lot of what Eamonn’s character came in and said was the truth. One way of looking at that family was, ‘They’re living off of you and they’re leaches,” something Lights is not ready to hear. They’re your family no matter what. It was a litmus test for what you think about your own family.
Was Johnny redeemable or was it part of his DNA to be a screw up?
It’s sort of funny. There are several moments of redemption for him during the season but no one noticed them. There are times when he is ready to sacrifice himself for his brother, such as the car accident when he says he’ll go to jail. As much as Lights is in a bad family situation, it’s got to be frustrating to be the brother of the former heavyweight champion of the world and you’ve been the fuck up.
And he was a good boxer at one point but his career faded. His career faded nominally because of a detached retina, but really because he didn’t have the heart. He was the one that Dad believed was going to go all the way. Dad always underestimates Lights, so Lights has to prove him wrong, and Daddy thinks Johnny walks on water but Johnny can’t live up to those expectations. Lights had more to prove. Johnny was naturally gifted.
For season two, we had talked about Johnny not being able to cope with Lights’ victory and trying to carve out a place for himself in the MMA world. Right now, MMA is not legal in New York, and we thought to put a cage in that gym would be an interesting place to go.
A critique of mine would’ve been that I thought there were points when Theresa was too hard on Lights.
The funny thing is, a lot of people have said that to me, but he lies to her 95% of the time. With Johnny it’s overt, but we like Lights so much. She has every reason to believe they’re set for life. She’s going to med school and not paying attention to money and anybody who doesn’t believe that’s realistic has never been in a marriage. She knows he’s not going to box, he’s withholding information about his medical and financial history to her, he’s lying to her about negotiations that are in progress. There’s a lot going on and he’s been lying for a while. The family situation had been worsening for two or three years, and it’s not just woeful denial on her part. He’s been hiding it.
He is such a likable character, you blame her.
You’ve blamed Johnny and Theresa. Lights broke a dentist’s arm. He punches a yuppie nearly to death in a bar. He ends his daughter’s childhood, basically. In the confession scene, that’s the one thing he can’t forgive himself for.
Holt didn’t want to play it that way. He’s a great guy. I specifically wrote in the script, ‘This is the moment at which Daniella’s childhood ends.’ But Holt is a very nice guy and his first impulse was to be patient. I said, ‘You have to shut her down or it’s all going to end. For Holt to get in the ring and get punched for 14 straight hours, no problem, that’s no problem, but for him to have to yell at a kid, it’s the last thing the actor wants to do. Not because he’s protecting his character, it just goes against his character. And that’s what I think audiences are picking up on.
How did the kids take the news about the show?
That’s a hard call, calling kid actors to say their show is canceled. What do I say, ‘The show has gone off to a farm’? They were very good. Kids on TV can be annoying. We were very lucky with the kids we got.