Monday, April 11, 2011

Lights Out for LIGHTS OUT - FX's Knockout Drama Goes Down Fighting!

- Last week turned out to be a busy one, but one thing I wanted to make time to write about was last week's season/series finale of LIGHTS OUT. Because man, to me, it was one hell of a finale. To me, the show went out with a bang.

LIGHTS OUT was a show that was always going to be sort of a tough sell. Boxing is now so well-established in the movies that most people know what a "boxing movie" is. They know Rocky, they know Raging Bull, now they know The Fighter. But what ... is a boxing TV show? It was uncharted territory. Would the show spend so much time on boxing as to turn off the non-boxing fan? Would the show spend so much time on character drama so as to leave the boxing fan disinterested? Personally, I have minimal to no interest in actual boxing. But I love boxing as a storytelling device. It's the primal story of survival of the fittest. It sets up all kinds of questions about our society, about the Modern Man vs. the Primitive Man, about defining what it is to be a man in the modern era. Is boxing a worthy means of putting food on the table and providing for your family? Is it noble to fight even if you know that doing so could cause you irreversible mental and physical damage? And what about the high-stakes, high-profit-margin world of pro-boxing - with all of its seedy promoters, criminal connections, gambling, corruption, etc.? Can one maintain integrity while directly feeding into that world? Can a guy like Patrick "Lights" Leary still be a hero and a role model - can he still be a good person? - after all the moral compromises he's had to make to get back on top of the boxing world?

What I loved about Lights Out is that because the drama was able to play out over a full season of television, a lot of the questions and issues that a movie like Rocky glazes over were explored here in much more depth. Lights Out looked at the racial issues inherent in boxing. Lights was promoted as a great white hope, while his opponent and rival, "Death Row" Reynolds, was cast as the villain. But was Reynolds really a villain? Was Lights really a hero? To what extent did Lights' race color the way he was promoted and perceived? The race issue was just one area of the boxing world that Lights Out was able to examine. The show also looked at the ongoing health issues that boxers face, and showed many different sides of the coin. As the show went on, we got a look at Lights' pugilistic dementia - a worsening condition that would put him in serious jeopardy should he step back into the ring as planned. Lights' father, meanwhile, seemed to be doing okay for an old-timer, but we also saw how his life in the ring created a fractured family. Then there was Ed Romeo - a trainer who was so intense that boxing matches to him were truly life-and-death events. Later in the season, we were introduced to an aged ex-fighter who barely knew what day of the week it was, after suffering far too many blows to the head. He was a potential glimpse - a scary premonition - of what Lights himself could become. Finally, I loved that Lights Out would step back and look at the very nature of a guy like Lights. Here is someone who's persona is that of a good man, a hero, a people's champion. But at the same time, it is in his nature - the thing that he most enjoys doing is essentially beating the crap out of people. Are all boxers sadists? Does that make them immoral? Does it make them mentally unstable? Or is that just a part of human nature that boxers are in touch with, but that most of us are forced to repress? It's funny, because a movie like Rocky (well, particularly the more cartoonish sequels) gives its hero a larger cause to fight for - his country, his honor, his friends and family. But what about a guy like Lights - he is partially fighting to win back lost honor and dignity (his retirement fight with Death Row ended in a controversial loss five years' prior), but most of all, he is doing it for the money. He needs the money to support his family, sure, but again, I like that Lights Out isn't about a guy fighting to avenge his friend or to represent his country or whatever. It's about one man and his very personal, not-always-clear-cut choices. In that way, the show would at times remind me of BREAKING BAD. Both shows are about men who make very difficult, very morally questionable choices when their hand is forced by some unfortunate twists of fate. The protagonists of both series are motivated by pride, but also by a belief that they are ultimately doing what is right and what is best for themselves and their families. In Lights Out, Lights knew that to get a rematch with Reynolds, he'd have to do favors for shady promoters. He'd have to get in bed with criminals and schemers. He'd have to put his own health at risk. He'd have to lie to his family about some of his activities, and about his health issues. And that was where we were in the season finale - Lights on the verge of his big comeback fight, his rematch with Death Row. He was a man on the verge of in-ring redemption, but also a man on the verge of moral, physical, and spiritual collapse.

I thought that the finale of LIGHTS OUT was, in this way, a pretty brilliant exclamation point for the season and the series. The in-ring action was intense and brutal. Okay, maybe boxing purists will criticize the fight choreography, but to me as a non-boxing fan, it made sense from a storytelling perspective. Lights starts off the fight sluggish and rusty, and gets clobbered by Reynolds. But once the blood starts flowing, Lights gets loose and focused. And then, when the crooked ref threatens to end the fight due to a cut over Lights' eye - when his Pop tells him to finish off Reynolds and to finish him off now - well, that inner animal in Lights is unleashed. Again, maybe not realistic from a real-life boxing standpoint, but to me, Lights' berzerker rage getting unleashed was in keeping with the themes of the show. And it was, I think, a brilliant twist. Up until now, Lights was mostly cast as the heavy underdog. Any chance he had at winning would surely come via a Rocky-like comeback and show of sheer will. But then the show reminded us: Lights had that inner sadist, that inner monster. Even though he had been cast as the hero, he was a brute. And so suddenly, Lights was the scary one - brutally beating on Reynolds until he achieved a sudden, merciless K-O.

Again, maybe not the most realistic turn of events, but man was I on the edge of my seat during the duration of this ultra-intense, climactic showdown. This was gripping TV. And then came the aftermath. Because as happy as I was for Lights, you had to know that the other shoe would drop. You had to know that this wasn't over ... yet. And that final sequence, with a dazed Lights alone in the locker room, trying to gather himself, but staring glassy-eyed into a janitor's closet trying to get his bearings - the air completely left the room. He walks out, he sees his wife, Theresa, who tells him that everyone's been waiting for him - it's time for his post-match press conference. "Just tell me one thing," says Lights. "Did we win the fight?" And on that haunting note, Lights Out came to a close. Joy and victory marred by shocking yet seemingly inevitable tragedy. Lights knew that he wasn't supposed to take blows to the head. He knew the price. We as an audience knew this was coming. But we were so caught up in the fight, rooting for Lights to win, to have his big comeback, that we all but forgot about everything else. We were like the audience watching the fight on TV in the universe of the show - caught up in the narrative that had been presented to us, (momentarily) ignorant of the larger storyline at play.

I like that the show ended with a degree of ambiguity. We don't know how severe Lights' problems are. Maybe it was just a quick mental lapse. Maybe this is just the beginning of lifelong dementia and severe brain damage. Maybe Lights re-retires, collects his paycheck, takes care of himself and lives his life in relative peace and quiet. But maybe this is the beginning of the end - a classic comeback story turned tragic.

What a performance from Holt McCallany as Lights. Judging by the previous track record of stars of great-but-failed series at the Emmys, Holt will end up getting overlooked come TV awards season. But man, this was one of the best and most memorable leading-man performances on TV in a long while. In the current TV landscape, this was up there with Olyphant on Justified, Buscemi on Boardwalk Empire (I'll leave Bryan Cranston in his own category of greatness for Breaking Bad). But Holt made Lights both heroic and tragic - easy to root for but also a guy you occasionally want to scream at for being an idiot (like when he goes along with one of his screw-up brother's sure-to-backfire plans for the upteenth time). I also loved Stacy Keach in his role as Pops, Lights' tough-as-nails dad. This is the kind of role tailor-made for Keach, and he of course knocked it out of the park - one more great role in a great career of playing badasses. Reg E. Cathey was over-the-top and sinister as the Don King-like promoter Barry Word - a great turn from him, and a role that produced all sorts of memorable lines (in the finale, loved his plea to Lights and Death Row at their pre-match press conference - "save the rage for the stage, the mojo for the dojo!"). Bill Irwin was another vaguely sinister and highly manipulative presence as Hall Brennan, a rival promoter to Barry. And hey, I've got to give one more shout-out to Eamon Walker for his unbelievably awesome guest stint as Ed Romeo - the ultra-intense zen-master of boxing. The Romeo character lit a fire in Lights Out. After a few stagnant episodes, the Romeo arc brought the show roaring back to life, giving it extra momentum to propel it towards the finale.

LIGHTS OUT was a great boxing series, a great character-driven serialized drama, and something new and different on TV. A great cast, some great plotting ... I even loved the evocative, retro ra-ra theme-song that would, without fail, get me pumped up for each new episode. Sure, the show stumbled and stagnated at times, but when all was said and done, its 13 episodes told a pretty awesome, pretty epic story. I know that FX has had a couple of back-to-back ratings bombs in this and prior to that with the late, great Terriers. But I sincerely hope that these types of shows - smart, character-driven, unpredictable serial dramas - will continue to flourish.

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