FX's boxing drama "Lights Out" debuted tonight. I already offered a general review over the weekend, and posted a long interview with showrunner Warren Leight yesterday. Now I have some thoughts on the revamped pilot episode coming up just as soon as I buy a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt...
"Your daughters miss you. They were crying last night. You have a life. We have a life." -Theresa
"This was always part of it." -Lights
This final version of the pilot, melding together pieces of the original version by Justin Zackham and material written by Leight (as he explains in the interview), has a lot of ground to cover in its 44 or so minutes. It has to give us at least a glimpse of Lights as the champ so we understand why he quit and how different his life is. It has to give us a sense of how big his problems are, and how quickly they're spiraling out of control. It has to give you a sense of Lights' relationship with wife Theresa, brother Johnny, his dad, and his three daughters. It has to show the depths to which Lights has sunk when he plays collection agent for the shadowy Hal Brennan, and it has to leave room for Lights to get into a fight or two to demonstrate that he still has a taste for hitting people.
And, Frankenstein'ed or not, the pilot does a very good job of squeezing all of that in, and making it interesting.
It helps enormously, of course, to have a lead performance like the one Holt McCallany provides as Lights. He's really, really strong here - not just having the obvious physique to be plausible as an ex-champ, but just in the way he carries himself, how he relates to the other actors, and how he's on-screen for virtually every minute of the pilot and stays charismatic throughout.
The sequence that sold me on the show was Lights' trip to collect from the dentist, and how he's absolutely confident and unashamed to be there, eating their food, and then demanding 500 grand from the guy. And I loved his reaction to the dentist pulling the bat on him: yes, he knows he can kick his ass 17 different ways, but he seems genuinely pleased for the guy that he didn't just roll over. It's a surprisingly ingratiating moment in the middle of a scene where our hero is preparing to beat up a suburban dentist to collect a debt.
And for that matter, I really liked how we then jump away from the dentist's home, and from Lights taking Katie out for ice cream, and Lights being taunted by the stockbroker, until all three sequences are cut together, so that we can see Lights being so gentle and paternal with his daughter at the same time he's being calculated but cruel with the dentist and an absolute savage with the stockbroker. Our man has many faces, even if they all come attached to the same hulking body.
An excellent start at introducing these characters and the problems they're facing, I thought, especially considering how jury-rigged some of it was. Just that shot of Lights in the ring at the end of the episode - so happy and peaceful and carefree - said so much about where he was, where he is, and where this is all likely going.
Some other thoughts:
• The first time I noticed any music at all was when Lights was bringing Katie home from ice cream and called Johnny to ask about the Brennan job, and though I forgot to ask Leight about it during our interview, I e-mailed him later to ask, and he explained that "Lights Out" has music rules very similar to what David Simon used on "The Wire." No score, very little music in general, and when music is used, it has to have some kind of practical source within the scene, like from Lights' car radio.
• I'm not positive that the dentist lives in the same house where Johnny Sack lived on "The Sopranos," because there are a lot of McMansions in the tri-state area with that look, but boy did it give me flashbacks.
• "Pugilistic dementia." That does not sound good, does it?
• I also like the ambiguity about exactly why Lights lost the Reynolds fight, whether he was robbed, etc. The flashbacks to the fight combined with what the TV interviewer says suggests that Lights' dad gave him bad advice about running away rather than finishing Reynolds when he had the chance, but we don't quite know.
• Reg E. Cathey (Norman from "The Wire") only turns up briefly at the end as Reynolds' manager, Barry K. Word, but I think you're going to enjoy what he gets to do in future episodes. And that's all I'll say about that.
What did everybody else think?
Everything: Lights Out
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