Interview: 'Lights Out' showrunner Warren Leight on the series finale
Though tonight's "Lights Out" episode wound up working quite well as a series finale for the low-rated series (you can read my review here), executive producer Warren Leight certainly didn't plan it that way. The entire season was written and produced before a single episode aired, so Leight and company had no way of knowing that it would be the only season they got to do.
Shortly after FX announced the cancellation, I e-mailed Leight a few questions about the series, including his theories on why it didn't work out, some insight into a few unanswered questions like what Barry Word and Hal Brennan were up to, what stories he might have told in the second season, and more. After the jump, his answers...
The requisite question is on what you think went wrong. (FX president John) Landgraf said the show was terrific, but in hindsight, nobody wanted to watch a boxing show. Do you agree? If so, there was probably nothing else you could have done. If not, what do you think the problem was?
I've heard and offered dozens of explanations about what happened. Each has some truth, or at least some spin, to it. Each has the sad advantage of hindsight. From our bowl of sour grapes, in no particular order:
1) "The show was too dark." Maybe so. My feeling was almost everyone has gone through a tough time in the last few years, and that viewers would relate to Lights, and the pressures he's under. It may be that audiences are looking more for escapism than realism at the moment.
2) "The release of 'The Fighter,' a few weeks before the premiere confused or overloaded audiences." Clearly the movie didn't help us. Some people conflated the advertising campaigns. Others may have gotten their fight fix with the movie. As for whether boxing was a dated backdrop, well, that was part of the point. We wanted to do a show about guys who've been marginalized. About men who risk their health and their lives just to take care of their family. Boxing was a great metaphor. And it's a world with an endless supply of story.
3) "The campaign over-emphasized boxing." The show was more than a boxing show, we all knew that. But the FX audience is young, male, and action oriented. If the campaign had emphasized the Leary family drama, we might have pulled in more non-FX viewers, but we might have lost more of the FX core audience .
4) "The show was on the wrong network." One big problem with this theory: without FX, there would be no show. John Landgraf and his team are terrific collaborators and insightful dramaturgs. They also took chances, on me, on Holt, on the show. We all knew the show had less action and fewer guns than "Justified" or "Sons of Anarchy" (they're both terrific shows). We were hoping the FX audience would take a chance on a more emotionally driven drama. Or that other viewers would crossover to FX. Neither happened in sufficient numbers. By the end of a week, with reruns and DVR viewing, we pulled over three million viewers. That might have been good enough for Showtime or HBO, but it isn't enough for an advertising supported basic cable network. So it goes.
5) "Tuesday night at ten sucked as a time slot." It did for us. it was great for "The Game." And "Teen Mom," and "Tosh.O," and "White Collar." Aside from those hits, it was DVR gridlock for fans of "Southland," "The Good Wife," "Parenthood" and several other strong dramas. A host of reality shows also managed to break through in the slot, we didn't.
The list goes on, but I'll stop here. Working on the show was a great privilege and everyone involved wanted to get the chance to go again. The disconnect between the critical and fan response, and the ratings, remains hard to accept. We're all grappling for an explanation, looking for a scapegoat, hoping for a reprieve. Over time that should ebb, and the season will remain.
There was that scene in the middle of the season of Brennan and Barry secretly meeting with each other. Were they plotting together all along or was that a red herring to make us distrust Brennan?
I like red herrings in crime shows, but not in "Lights Out." I believe Brennan and Barry were plotting before the series began. Guys like this think very long term, and a Lights/Death Row rematch was a potential dream pay day for both of them. Brennan would have known Lights was in financial trouble. "Lights Landing", the family real estate venture, was under water. Johnny was gambling heavily, with Brennan's guys. Brennan probably went to Barry a year ago and said he might be able to deliver Lights for a rematch with Death Row, in exchange for his customary five percent. Barry had no pull with the Leary family at that time, so he'd have been happy to use Brennan as a front. The collection job Brennan offered Lights in the pilot was a ploy, a way to begin to get into business with Lights, and Johnny. He wasn't expecting the job to turn ugly. When it did, he cleaned up the mess, and simultaneously obligated Lights to him. Brennan and Barry worked together to get Lights, and Death Row back into the ring, but neither would have trusted the other for a second the entire time they were working together. Brennan's longer term plan is revealed in the finale. Season two would see Brennan and Barry take the gloves off.
You wrapped up an awful lot with that finale. This was all done before the season even started airing, so were you just hedging your bets in case it didn't work? And if things had gone differently and there was a second season, what stories would you have told now that Lights was champ again but his dementia was becoming more overt?
We weren't hedging. You can't think like that when you're in production. And also, the finale was planned well before production began. We wanted a three act structure to the season, building to the rematch in the Season One finale. Lights' job for Brennan in the pilot was meant to light the fuse. Obviously scripts and stories changed as we moved into production but we never thought "War" would be the Series Finale. We were all so engaged and invested in the show we were already thinking about Season Two, and even the series finale, six years out. I was aware, and worried that Lights had at most one and a half seasons of boxing left, after season one. I also spent a lot of time thinking about the path his dementia would take, and the ways in which he would try to compensate and cover it up. The David Morse character was meant to hint at what the end of the road might look like for Lights. Lights, we all knew, would fight the dementia with the same heart he brought into the ring.
Are there things you either learned in the course of making the season or in the course of seeing the response to it that would have led to obvious changes in a hypothetical second season? Were you surprised, for instance, by how taken people were with Ed Romeo? Or that people kept complaining about the periodic absence of the various daughters?
We knew, or suspected Ed Romeo would give the show a jolt. He's a heartbreaking character, a flawed outsider with a liberating/threatening point of view. (beautifully acted by Eammon Walker, and beautifully conceived by writer Bryan Goluboff. Our show's technical advisor, Teddy Atlas, also helped flesh out the trainer's physical and psychological approach). We wanted him to come in, and take over the show, in almost the same way he moved into Light's home and life. Too intimate, too soon. Too threatening, not just to Johnny, but also, at the end of the day, to Lights. When he left Lights, and us, we wanted to feel a void. Another episode, I think, would have undercut that. And taken too much focus away from Lights, and pops, whose relationship is more central to the series.
When we worked in the writers' room, we struggled with how much time to spend on any particular new story line. How many episodes should we devote to Omar Assarian, or Ed Romeo, or Jerry "the Rainmaker," or mom. In almost every instance we chose to compress two episodes of story beats into one, or three into two. We wanted to cover a lot of ground en route to the rematch.
Season two would have less of an overt, get-me-to the-rematch, arc to it. We'd splay out story lines differently, and probably make the show's point of view less subjective. The pressures of a first season are such a push, you never really get to step back and get perspective on what's happened. How the actors have defined their characters, how the show's template has evolved. We stopped shooting in July, since then, the characters and their worlds have continued to... grow inside my head. David Morse and Eammon Walker's episodes, and the finale, we're all hints of how the story telling was going to change.
As for the daughters, and Pops, they were contracted for thirteen episodes in Season Two. For financial reasons, that wasn't the case in Season One. I felt, when one of the girls was absent, it would have been strange for her parents to not acknowledge/reference it. I gather some fans and critics disagreed. Oh well.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com