TV Review: ‘Lights Out’

“Lights Out” (FX)
Frank Ockenfels 3/FX.

The acclaimed series that has whiffed on finding an audience -- leaving a palpable sense of sadness and disappointment among Fox president John Landgraf and his FX colleagues (not to mention critics).

A virtuoso lead performance and lack of cliches make FX’s boxing drama instantly compelling.

The allure of the boxing film goes back generations. But though some have been cheesy box-office hits, some have been gritty stories of redemption, and some — going way back — have tapped into the noirish aspects of the boxing subculture, there hasn’t been much of a battle cry to put such a story on television.

That’s because the formula is an easy trap for cliches and limited in long-term appeal. Or at least that was part of the theory on why a weekly series wouldn’t work. But FX, with its sterling premiere of Lights Out, shakes the Etch A Sketch of genre possibilities and rolls out a show that becomes instantly one of the most compelling dramas on television.

It also marks what should be the triumphant, star-is-born performance of Holt McCallany, who has toiled in mostly unremarkable character roles but makes Lights Out shine with his where-did-this-guy-come-from work.

The series was created by Justin Zackham and steered after the pilot by respected writer Warren Leight (In Treatment and a number of acclaimed plays). It centers on Patrick “Lights” Leary, who battled his way up the ranks to become a heavyweight champion but ends up losing a fight he dominated by carelessly taking a huge, avoidable blow in the final round.

Lights Out opens with a bloodied Leary on a table in the locker room, looking all but dead. His wife, Theresa (Catherine McCormack), paces around him in a mix of worry and anger. She wants him out of the fight game because she can’t stand the damage. It’s essential to Lights Out that Leary isn’t some untouchable, supremely gifted loudmouth who decimates challengers with a brilliant skill set. Instead, he’s a grinder, up from the streets of Jersey, big, strong and talented enough to beat the crap out of a string of guys to get the title. He has made money, bought a nice house in the suburbs and put three daughters in private school while Theresa continues medical school.

But in a flash he’s at a crossroads with Theresa. It’s boxing or her. So he quits — and the series picks up five years after that last fight, with Leary showing a knack for cooking meals, being a loving stay-at-home father and burying whatever regrets and pugilistic ambitions he has left.

What makes Lights Out work on more than one predictable level is that McCallany is note-perfect delivering myriad emotions. He knows he had that fight won. But he’s also a good father who, five years later at 39, is comfortable spending time as a family man. That comfort is chipped at ever so slowly because time has diminished the respect and reverence he once held in the community.

But a promise is a promise, and McCallany gives Leary a calm exterior. Part of that calm comes from his hidden secret: He’s struggling with pugilistic dementia. He’s tired and forgetful but very aware from the CT scan that the future is uncertain. Degeneration could keep coming on slowly, or it could accelerate. He spends his time in his gym, overseen by his brother Johnny (Pablo Schreiber), whom Leary put through business school, and his father, “Pops” (Stacy Keach), head trainer at the gym. But the gym and its fighters have seen better days, and Johnny’s bad investment deals have left Leary nearly broke. He’s reduced to a series of embarrassing gigs to keep the money trickling in.

The beauty here is that Leary knows what’s looming, as he’s drawn inexorably toward a rematch with “Death Row” Reynolds (Billy Brown). Despite the good face he puts on his struggles — and McCallany is equally great talking to his daughters or beating the snot out of people who think he’s a broken-down has-been out of the ring — there’s no getting away from the albatross. Leary’s a fighter; it’s what he does. And he’s no longer able to claim acceptance of history’s turn and his life’s changes. The man has an existential crisis of mounting proportions, and those internal struggles are what Leight is best able to make resonate in Leary.

Lights Out has a strong cast from top to bottom (though McCormack, despite her impressive résumé, can’t keep her British accent from leaking through persistently). Beyond the superb pilot, Lights Out begins to get wonderfully nuanced and more interesting with each episode. And though the series avoids most boxing cliches while keeping true to the inescapable elements of “the sweet science,” the real key to its success is McCallany. In his virtuoso performance, he’s able to elevate the series and give “Lights” Leary more shape and substance than anyone could have expected.

It’s a monster performance with both subtlety and power. You can’t takes your eyes off McCallany, and in turn, Lights Out has a hook that comes out of nowhere.           

Airdate: 10 p.m. Tuesdays (FX)
Cast: Holt McCallany, Catherine McCormack, Pablo Schreiber, Stacy Keach Creator: Justin Zackham Executive producers: Warren Leight, Justin Zackham, Phillip Noyce, Ross Fineman
Production: Fox Television Studios, FX Prods.