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Television review: 'Lights Out' on FX

The 13-episode boxer comeback series isn't always electrifying or convincing, but it, and its many fine performances, exert a pull.

January 11, 2011|By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

From "Gillette's Friday Night Fights" in the 1950s to the birth of pay-per-view and premium cable and the wide world of a thousand channels of sports, television has had a long and fruitful relationship with boxing. But it's rarely been the subject for drama (as it has often been on the big screen): There was Rod Serling's "Requiem for a Heavyweight," famously, back in the golden age, and Showtime's "Resurrection Blvd.," about three generations of East L.A. boxers, at the turn of this century, and as far as I can work, not much else.

With its emphasis on shows about men and the imperatives of a sometimes self-defeating manliness, FX would seem to be the most likely network to test the genre. And so they have, with "Lights Out," a 13-episode series beginning Tuesday about a former heavyweight champion trying to come back after five years out of the ring. It is something shy of electrifying and not always convincing, but it pulls you right along and offers too many good moments and fine performances not to recommend it.

Oddly, the central role provides the least flash. As 40-ish Patrick "Lights" Leary, Holt McCallany gives an opaque, somewhat stolid performance that does finally befit a character whose main occupation, even more than boxing, is to assure the people around him that everything is fine or will be, even when they aren't and may not be: the wife who asked him to retire ( Catherine McCormack), the father who trains him ( Stacy Keach, memorably a boxer himself in John Huston's "Fat City"), the brother who has mismanaged his money (an excellent Pablo Schreiber), his daughters, and poorly conceived reporters, there just to cause trouble.

Leary sometimes thinks with his fists and, driven by money woes, makes bad decisions early in the story — decisions designed to propel his character out of retirement, over various objections, and to ensure that the path back is strewn with obstacles. But, in a departure from the obvious, there is a wholesomeness to him, perhaps not to be unexpected from the show's creator, Justin Zackham, author of "The Bucket List." He's not an animal. He's not self-hating. He's not abusive or — as he so easily might have been in a basic-cable drama — unfaithful. Notwithstanding the 30,000th scene in which a father misses his daughter's dance recital, he's a loving parent. And he's not dumb, though he is a little too reckless of his own safety and too trusting of others; he seems improbably naïve about the business he was in for years.

Universally excellent work is done by actors in big parts and small, including Reg E. Cathey as a flamboyant fight promoter who compares two opposing boxers to Beatrice and Benedick; Bill Irwin as a proper mobster-businessman sticking a finger Cathey's pie; Pedro Pascal as a hotheaded young fighter; Eammon Andrews, playing a gnomic trainer in a Miles Davis rasp; and equally fine David Morse as a punch-drunk fighter Leary tries to help.

If the approach toward the final big fight lacks some urgency and speed — it's stated but not felt — fighting is only partly the point. This is a family drama, and you watch it less concerned with what Leary is out to win than with what he might lose. The sport itself, though it is shown to attract characters of less than valorous intent, is neither glorified nor demonized, nor are the fight scenes themselves amplified in any way to make a romantic point or to provide an occasion for reckoning or redemption. Boxing is just what boxers do.

"You're going to have to learn to take a punch again," Keach tells McCallany as they set out to retake the crown.

"It sounds like fun."

"It does, doesn't it?" says Keach, brightening.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com


'Lights Out'

Where: FX

When: 10 p.m. Tuesday

Rating: TV-MA-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence)

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