Boxing has enjoyed a longstanding love affair with the movies, but it’s unexpected to see the sport come to episodic television — especially at a moment when the “sweet science” is getting roughed up by loud alternatives like mixed martial arts. Still, FX’s “Lights Out” delivers a solid medley of punches, breaking little new ground but establishing its protagonist — a retired champ named Patrick “Lights” Leary, played with gruff brio by Holt McCallany — as a force to be reckoned with, facing the usual litany of problems. There’s considerable drama, it turns out, in what happens when the gloves come off.
Leary is introduced at the end of a bruising title fight, after which his wife, Theresa (Catherine McCormack), delivers a “Retire or lose me” ultimatum.
Five years later, he’s cruising along on investments and managing a gym, all overseen by his brother Johnny (“The Wire’s” Pablo Schreiber), ensconced in a mansion with Theresa and their three daughters. But the good times are about to come to a screeching halt: Lights’ finances have dried up, the IRS is after him, and he’s faced with several unappetizing or undignified choices to reverse his fortunes, from peddling merchandise on a shopping channel to becoming a glorified bag man for a bookie. All told, it’s a tough fall from the assumption that all those blows to the head left Lights “set for life.”
The most obvious option, alas, is also the most familiar, and the most dangerous: getting back in the ring for a big-purse rematch of his final fight, which would solve his money woes, but also might cost him his life, or at least his lucidity, given the damage he’s incurred from years in the ring.
Overseen by Warren Leight, the footwork in “Lights Out” won’t come as a shock to admirers of “Raging Bull” or any number of boxing films. Nor does the fight choreography deviate much from the “Rocky” norm, where an inordinate number of punches are blocked by somebody’s face.
Still, McCallany — a veteran actor whose well-traveled, tough-guy resume quickly disappears as he inhabits the role — makes Lights a figure worthy of empathy, yet capable of ferocious outbursts when riled. It’s a dead-on character for a channel that has established a niche in macho, high-testosterone drama, consisting of grimy worlds, hard men and the women they occasionally pin up against walls — or copying machines. (Still hot for each other, Lights and Theresa have sex in a bed, which seems so last decade.)
While the other characters all fit traditional boxing models, thanks to savvy casting the series has put plenty of top-flight talent in “Lights’?” corner. There’s the sleazy promoter (Reg E. Cathey, another “Wire” alum), shadowy money guy (Bill Irwin), wiseass reporter (Ben Shenkman), and Lights’ crusty dad and trainer (Stacy Keach).
FX sent out the full 13-episode run of the series, and while the writing loses some of its punch — in terms of suspending disbelief, anyway — in the later rounds, the arc maintains solid momentum as Lights’ options dwindle and new setbacks arise, leading toward the seemingly inevitable comeback.
“Lights Out” isn’t an unqualified knockout, but in its milieu, leading man and rich supporting players, score the show a clear winner on points. And that’s no bull.