Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Tale of Two (On-The-Bubble) TV Shows: LIGHTS OUT and FRINGE

- To some extent, and with various ebbs and flows, we've been in the midst of a golden age of TV over the last decade. There is more content than ever before - more channels, more ways of watching, more flexibility in terms of WHEN we watch ... there's also more crap, and it can be increasingly difficult to wade through the junk to find the good stuff. For the more casual TV viewer, the fact that AMC or FX has just premiered a great new drama can get lost in the information clutter. And if you are, like me, one of those people who proactively seeks out good TV, then the sheer number of series that now come highly recommended can be pretty daunting. Part of me almost tends to want certain on-the-bubble shows to end, just to make room for other, better shows - or even just to free up my viewing schedule a bit.

- So when I heard that FX had a new serialized drama coming out a few months back - a show about a boxer called LIGHTS OUT - part of me just wanted to skip it altogether. Did I really have room in my schedule, and did I really want to mentally commit to yet another intense drama - even if it turned out to be great? Adding further confusion, the promos for Lights Out on FX were not particularly informative. It was hard to tell what kind of show this would be - what the tone would be, who the characters were, etc. I remember that the early ads were more abstract, featuring evocative footage of a boxer training for a fight - as opposed to actual footage from the show. At the same time, I have grown to trust FX when it comes to drama. JUSTIFIED has quickly become one of my favorite shows on the air. TERRIERS, while sadly cancelled after just one season, quickly became a true cult classic - one of the absolute best, smartest, most well-acted TV shows I've seen in years. And hey, even if I'm not much of a real-life boxing fan, I love movies about the sweet science. As fans of Rocky and Raging Bull can attest, boxing tends to make for great, epic drama.

And so I gave LIGHTS OUT a chance, and I have to say, after being unsure about it for the first couple of episodes, it quickly grew into a damn good TV show. As the characters grew more defined and the plotting got tighter and more intense, the show went from one that I'd catch up on over the weekend to one that I made a point to watch each week as soon as possible. After several weeks, I think it's safe to say that Lights Out is perhaps THE must-watch drama on the air for me.

The cast is awesome. Holt McCallany is great in the lead role of retired boxer Patrick "Lights" Leary. I wasn't familiar with him before this show, but man, someone get him into action movies. Any superhero movie that needs someone to play a tough brawler type - get Holt (if they ever make a JSA movie and need someone to play Wildcat - here you go). This is Emmy-worthy work from him, and more than that, he is 100% believable as a 40-something ex-champ looking to make a comeback. Similarly, I don't think anyone could play Lights' ex-fighter father better than the great Stacy Keach. Keach has always been a badass, and that holds true in Lights Out. For me though, Lights Out went from very good to GREAT during a two-part mini arc in which they brought in character actor Eamonn Walker as the loose cannon trainer Ed Romeo. Walker was just the spark plug that the show needed, introducing an unpredictable and totally captivating X-factor into the storylines. Romeo was on one hand likable, but on the other hand liable to snap and go full-on psycho at any moment. The story of Romeo's introduction into Lights' life gave Lights Out a ton of momentum going into its home-stretch of Season 1 episodes. With only a few episodes left to go, I can't wait to see how things wrap up. While the show started off feeling slightly familiar and predictable, the various twists and turns in recent weeks have given the show a wild, anything-can-happen feel.

Sadly, of course, word came in last week that LIGHTS OUT is cancelled. Ratings were low, and while the prez of FX insisted that it was just a tough premise to sell an audience on, I can't help but feel that the marketing did only a so-so job of getting the word out about the show - never really converying that yes, this was a show about boxing, but that it was also a character-driven serialized drama in the tradition of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad.

Why didn't more people watch Lights Out? What does it mean when networks like FX are taking chances on ambitious shows like this, but can't ultimately get the ratings to keep them on the air for more than one season? FX seems to be doing okay with Justified, but after Terriers' cancellation and now Lights Out, you have to wonder just how many serialized dramas can coexist at once on the air. A show like Lights Out is no longer just competing with its timeslot competitors either - it's up against recent shows that people are catching up on via DVD or blu-ray, against classic shows that people are streaming on Netflix. It's up against limited storage space on the DVR, and limited hours in a person's day devoted to TV consumption. Still, it's a shame when a show this good - particularly one that's really come into its own and found its groove over the last several weeks - gets the axe even as so much of the other garbage that's out there thrives.

I'll write more about LIGHTS OUT in the weeks to come, and I wish I had had more of an opportunity to write about it and sing its praises sooner. But if you've been on the fence, I say it's worth your time to hit up iTunes or whatever and catch up on the show. It really did become a pretty epic, super-intense drama about a fighter who wants one more fight - who needs one more chance in the ring - regardless of what it might cost him. This show deserved better. That said, I can't wait for the final two episodes of the season. When all is said and done, this will be up there as one of the year's best.

- On the other end of the spectrum, we have FRINGE, which I've talked a lot about over the last few years here on the blog. I haven't written as much lately, simply because I've been cutting back on my TV blogging ... but FRINGE remains one of TV's best, most imaginative, most thought-provoking, most daring dramas. It still features perhaps my single favorite performance on a TV show right now, that being John Noble's award-worthy turn as mad scientist turned FBI crime-solver Walter Bishop. Week in and week out, Noble is in turns funny, intense, heartbreaking, and imposing - a veritable tour de force. And not only is he doing all that as the jittery, scatterbrained Walter Bishop, but he's also playing a completely distinct and separate character to great effect - the Earth 2 version of Walter, affectionately dubbed Walternate. Walternate shares Walter's basic character DNA, but he's clear-thinking, cold, calculating, and ruthless. It's a testament to Noble that he's crafted two such distinct yet distinctly awesome characters. And it's a testament to the rest of the main cast, particularly Anna Torv, that they've done the same this season - playing both the Earth 1 and Earth 2 versions of their characters. Incredibly, Fringe's Earth 2 alternate universe has become just as compelling and interesting - if not more so - than Earth 1. Earth 2-centric episodes this season have been some of the season's best, including this past week's rip-roaring episode which saw Earth 2's Olivia ("Fauxlivia") get kidnapped by a mysterious group of conspirators, her recently-discovered pregnancy accellerated thanks to Earth 2's super-science.

I think what's really kept Fringe fresh this season is just its total willingness to go balls-to-the-wall, having no fear in terms of driving its mythology forward at a rapid pace. The show's been introducing huge, game-changing plot developments every week, and clearly isn't afraid to shake things up. If anything, the show has almost gotten TOO out-there in recent weeks, substituting its usual backbone of provocative pseudo-science with concepts that rely a bit too much on less science-based, more spiritual concepts that don't seem to jibe with the show's usual M.O. We've seen sci-fi series like The X-Files and Lost lose their way when they get too goofy and sentimental, and stray too far from the darker sci-fi aspects that first intrigued viewers. So I was a bit put off in recent weeks when Fringe introduced some semi-lame ideas, like the immortal soul of the late Dr. William Bell (played by Leonard Nimoy) being resurrected and transferred into the body of Olivia - necessitating that poor Anna Torv spend a whole episode trying to talk like Dr. Spock. Even amidst such absurdity, Fringe still managed to entertain. One of Fringe's most underrated elements is, of course, its sense of humor - as John Noble usually has at least a couple of laugh-out-loud non-sequitars in each episode (a conversation in the soul magnet episode between Dr. Bishop and Dr. Bell-in-Olivia's-body, in which Bishop suggested that they transfer Bell's conciousness from Olivia's body into a cow's - and the subsequent issue of who would have to milk said cow - is already a Fringe classic). Still, I think that Fringe was indeed slumming a bit since its return from hiatus several weeks back. The show lost a bit of momentum, and had too many plots that hinged not on sci-fi but on more abstract concepts rooted in sprituality, getting too close to Lost's end-of-series, bitter-taste-leaving "love is all you need" focus.

But this past weekend's FRINGE, to me, brought the show back to greatness, delivering a badass Earth 2 tale that effectively set the stage for some epic events in the weeks ahead, with the building drama involving the war between the two universes coming to a head. At its best, Fringe is just great sci-fi, and great serialized TV. The show almost never panders to the dumbest people in the audience, frequently introducing mind-bending, challenging concepts, and pairing them with ambitious, take-no-prisoners storytelling that's most definitely not by-the-numbers.

And the good news? Despite only-okay ratings in FOX's Friday Night Death Slot, FRINGE was just officially renewed for a Season 4. That is awesome news. Fringe is currently in the midst of telling a huge, ambitious, epic story - one that certainly can't be wrapped up in the handful of episodes left in Season 3. This isn't a show that I want to see go on and on and wear out its welcome, but it is one that I want to see have a solid 4 or 5 season run. But ... the fact that Fringe is still seemingly so under the radar has to be troubling for fans of good TV. This is a series from JJ Abrams, with all the intrigue, imagination, and high-concept fun of Lost, and with some of the finest acting on all of TV. How are more people not tuning in? Or are they, and we're just not capturing it properly in this age of time-shifting, online streaming, etc? Fringe deserves more viewers, more critical acclaim, and more buzz. And as tempting as it might be to try to simplify the show's themes for the sake of explaining its appeal, I don't think that's necessary. A recent Entertainment Weekly article on Fringe made the case that it was worth watching because it was, at its core, a universe-spanning epic love story. Um, what? Just because that's a palatable, easy-to-consume concept doesn't mean that it accurately describes this show. Fringe has romance and it is an epic, but to me Fringe is about the fundamental mystery of science, and the inherent danger of mankind messing with nature, and the unforseen consequences of said tampering. At a time when our real world seems to sometimes be coming apart before our eyes, Fringe is the heightened version of our contemporary fears and anxieties. And that - that's what all the best sci-fi is about.

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