S1E1: Boxing. Here we are again. You and me. I’ve seen your stories before in movies. They’re fun. They’re exciting. They’re touching. Honestly, you’re a helluva sport. You know how to make champions. You know to break hearts. But perhaps most accurately, you know how to break men and that’s why we love to hear your stories.
TV hasn’t really seen you before, boxing (at least not that I’m aware of). In the movies, you’ve always provided interesting, gripping story lines. But a television show? Can this medium handle you?
FX is certainly trying and appears to be succeeding. The channel premiered its terrific new drama last night, Lights Out, and if the pilot is any indication, there is now another awesome drama on cable television. The series focuses on an ex-boxer named Patrick “Lights” Leary, former heavyweight champion of the world. He went out at the top of his game because the world he fought in was crumbling around him. His wife was the catalyst. She made him choose between the world of boxing and his family — a wife and three girls. He agreed that his life is worth more than his career, so after his final fight — a split-decision loss — he decided to throw in the towel.
Lights Out picks up five years later and life isn’t all that glamorous for Lights. His gym is dying. His brother — who’s also his manager — has quite a few problems of his own (the typical divorce-custody fight). And worst of all, he’s broke.
“Your daughter’s miss you. They were crying last night. You have a life. We have a life.” -Theresa
“This was always part of it.” -Lights
Okay, I lied a little. Technically, Lights Out kicked off after Lights’ last fight. We open with our star lying on a medical table, his face and eye bashed in and bleeding. His wife comes in and throughout their conversation, we flashback to the fight — which ended in a split-decision loss.
I loved opening to the show. His wife — named Theresa — was much more than just a supporter of his career. She was part of it. At the time, a P.A., she was able to not only give him words of comfort and advice, but she was able to physically heal him by sewing up his gruesome wound. Frankly, it was nice to see the show break from the stereotypical woman-supporter character. Immediately, the series is showing us that Theresa is most definitely not a bimbo. She knows how her husband thinks and as the quote above shows, she’s not afraid to challenge those thoughts and their current way of life.
Giving us this first scene was not only a good decision but necessary in setting up the story. We need to know how much Theresa loathes like boxing. We need to know that Lights has a family to support. We need to know all of these things because we need to feel something for this bloodied, beat-up piece of meat. Once we learn the cost of his decision to fight and what it puts his family through, suddenly we’re feeling much more compassion for him. He’s no longer one-dimensional. Setting this up in the first few minutes of the series was not only a good decision, but one that is vital to the its success.
“You were a champ, Lights, for what, like 9 months? You walked away five years ago. That’s a long time. And if you think you can find someone who can do better under the given circumstances, then you go get them.” – Johnny, Lights’ brother/manager
The show cuts to current life for the family five years after The Fight (for the sake of clarity, and under my assumption that this fight will continue to be referenced throughout the series, I will refer to it as “The Fight” in my recaps so you know what I’m talking about). Anyway, we see Lights in his life and everything seems like what we’d assume any retired professional athlete would be doing. He loves his daughters. He loves his wife. He exercises while thinking of his past life. He sometimes forgets things, but he is really trying to be a good father and a good man.
After he drops his daughter off to school late and attempts to apologize to the teacher by “signing a glove,” (which is hilarious, by the way) he heads to his gym and talks with his brother/manger/former corner man Johnny. At this point, we find out that Lights is essentially broke. The gym is going under. There’s no investors or income. Once again, this is all setup — albeit, important — but still, it’s just setup of things to come.
“Uncle Patrick, will you teach me how to fight?” -Dillon, Lights’ nephew
Let’s talk for a moment about some of the technical aspects of the show. In the same way that Friday Night Lights or Breaking Bad uses camera work to reveal the moods of the characters in each episode, Lights Out is similarly conveying information. There’s a gritty, dirty feel to it. For example, the unsteady, sometimes jerky, movement of the handheld camera makes us feel not like we’re watching Lights’ life, but more so, like we’re part of it. We’re on the journey with him. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think there were any scene without Lights (if they did, they were very brief). So the show is clearly about Lights and his responses to, well, everything.
On top of that, the use of sound and music is very well done. Everything feels real. Very rarely — except at the end of the show — do we hear non-diegetic music. Instead, Lights Out uses music only when it’s logical, like say, when Lights is driving and the car radio is on. Through this absence, the sounds of Lights’ world are emphasized — even simple things like breathing and walking (i.e., when Dillon asks if Lights would teach him to fight. Even though we don’t get a voiceover explaining why he wants to help him fight or why he doesn’t, we hear him breathing and understand his thoughts simply from his physical actions). Because of this approach, we are part of his world, not just observing it.
“I’m broke, Dad. I’ve got nothing to pay them with. It’s all gone.” -Lights
“I don’t really know.” -Lights
I guess I’ll emphasize this again since the show wants me to, Lights is broke. And this is where I’ll stop kissing Lights Out’s ass and reveal that yes, there is actually something wrong with this show. My main issue? We’ve seen this character before. Sure, we haven’t seen a boxing drama like this on television, but in reality, we’ve seen this type of story done. An ex-athlete who used to be on top of the world isn’t anymore. He has no money. He wants to support his family, but he doesn’t know how and the only thing that he’s ever been good at is fighting. I mean, basically, it’s a standard plot line.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s pretty much impossible to have a completely original story idea. Even great television (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, etc) relies on plot lines that we’ve seen before, but what makes them great is the fact that they execute the story lines so well and perhaps, more importantly, have extremely interesting characters. Think about what draws you to those shows. It’s the Don’s and the Walt’s. They do things within world’s that, yes, we can identify with, but act in ways that we wouldn’t expect or do ourselves. Or, they do things that we would want to do ourselves, but we don’t for whatever reason. Right now, Lights Out is successfully presenting a world that we’ve seen before with a character that, honestly, isn’t that original — yet.
“Good for you. Protecting your home. All bowed up like a real man.” -Lights
So, now that I’ve got my minor complaints out, let’s talk about the best part of the pilot: the last ten minutes. At this point, the show recovered from it’s standard plot/character setup and did it beautiful.
First, you’ve got Lights talking to his teenage daughter about her boyfriend while soaking his fist in a bowl of ice. Immediately after telling her that “people tell lies to hide themselves,” he lies to her. Why was his fist in a bowl of ice? Because he beat the shit out of some dude for cash outside of a bar. Then, we cut to the talk with his daughter over ice cream. As he asks her why she was afraid of him and tells her that he would never hurt her, we cut to him beating the shit out of the dentist.
It was in these moments that I thought simply, “Wow, this is going to be one helluva show.” Sure, we have a plot we’ve seen before. We have a world we’ve seen before. We have a character we’ve seen before. But, the writers are doing something different. They’re taking these situations and turning them on their heads. Lights tells his daughter that you lie to hide yourself and even though she thinks he’s talking about her, he’s really talking about himself, because he wants to be the best father he can. He tells his other daughter that there’s nothing he wouldn’t do to keep her safe and then we see him breaking another man’s arm. Lights is a compelling character because of this inner turmoil. It’s very clear that he loves his family. That’s never in doubt. But how much of himself is he willing to sacrifice to protect his family? To make sure that they have enough money to live? Well, he’s willing to do the one thing that he knows how to do: beat people up. Now is that good for his family? Well, probably not. But that’s all he knows.
Basically, I’m asking all these questions because I’m interested in Lights. I want to know more about him and I assume (and hope) that Lights Out will continue to explore the questions it raised in the pilot’s final 10 minutes. Because if it does, Lights could emerge as the most interesting character on TV since Don Draper’s inception — except instead of pitching one-liners, this guy throws a punch.