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The final bell for "Lights Out"

The first and final season of Lights Out reached its conclusion last night. In the nine episodes that have aired since I last wrote about the show, Lights Out answered my critiques, and then some.

Throughout the show, Patrick “Lights” Leary is torn between two families, pitting the needs of his wife and kids against the needs of his siblings and parents. It’s a complicated dynamic that doesn’t quite run parallel to the tension between Lights’ desire to do things the right way versus the necessary way. Stacey Keach was a constant bright spot in the cast, even if a late-season appearance by Lights’ mother played out predictably. As the season progressed, Johnny (Pablo Schreiber) became more sympathetic, more damaged than malicious, while their sister Margaret (Elizabeth Marvel) moved in the other direction. The only shortfall continued to be the weakly characterized children, but there is only so much you can do in 40 minutes chunks.

Lights fought his way back from the street to the ring to challenge “Death Row” Reynolds. Along the way, he helped train a loser, took out the vicious Javier ‘El Diablo’ Morales, and survived various underworld diversions. The shady world of boxing promotion was on full display. Neither the characters nor the audience could pin down Hal Brennan or Barry Word, thanks to nuanced performances from character actors Bill Corwin and Reg E. Cathey. The excellent David Morse showed up as a punch drunk boxer (and cautionary tale). Eamonn Walker was mesmerizing as headcase trainer Ed Romeo. Unfortunately, he played the role of Magical Negro, coming out of nowhere to offer a new perspective on life and boxing to our white hero, before returning to whence he came.

The central dramatic issue of the show was how far Lights would go for the championship belt. As far as morality, Lights was not without fault; he was a button man and a cage fighter; he’d get someone to intimidate a witness. Yet the physical cost of fighting, and the threat of Pugilistic Dementia, loomed larger than any prison time. By the end of the show, Lights got what he wanted, but at what cost?

After a season of declining ratings, the decision not to renew Lights Out was an easy one for FX. And unlike a show like Terriers, the end feels natural. Where else could the writers take this show and these characters? Lights’ narrative is complete, recasting the show as a 13-episode, 9-hour miniseries. In a backwards sort of way, FX is crafting shows in the British style: short runs that tell self-contained stories. Lights Out proves that not every show needs to go 12 rounds to be a knockout.

Is “Lights Out” a true contender?

From the earliest teaser trailer of FX’s Lights Out, the premise looked like a winner. A boxer on the downturn of his career, trying to be a husband and father, with a career path that forks at “one last chance before dementia” and “low-level enforcer.” The high concept log line would be The Fighter meets The Sopranos.

After four episodes, the show has flirted with the lofty promise of that premise. Unfortunately, its success has been in fits and starts. While each episode has been compelling in its own way, it feels like the potential isn’t being met. Still, we’re only four episodes in to the first season, and the show has a lot to offer.

Lights Out opens with Patrick “Lights” Leary (Holt McCallany), bloodied and unconscious on a metal table, bathed in a harsh halogen glow; it might as well be a morgue. He’s just lost his career defining match: losing his belt to “Death Row” Reynolds. His wife Theresa (Catherine McCormack) snaps the smelling salts, stiches him up (she’s in medical school), and hands him an ultimatum: fighting or family, but not both.

Lights hangs up his gloves, and five years pass. He tries his best to piece together the money needed to keep his family in the lifestyle they’ve become accustomed to: med school for his wife, private school for his kids. It’s a tenuous ploy, and he leaves it in the hands of his brother/manager Johnny.

Johnny, played by The Wire’s Pablo Schreiber, has sunk Lights’ funds into a stalled development project, The Landing, reminiscent of the Soprano-Lupertazzi joint venture, the Esplanade. He’s also trying to keep his father’s gym up and running. As if that wasn’t enough, Johnny is a total degenerate, fucking anything that moves and always looking for an angle. Each broken promise and bad deal begets another lie, as he digs a deeper hole for himself, and in turn, his family. Predictably, Lights does whatever it takes to bail out his brother. After four episodes of this, it’s already a tired act.

Johnny connects Lights with local gangster Hal Brennan (the icy Bill Irwin). A collection here, a delivery there, and Lights is that much closer to being a button man. It’s not a role he relishes, but the bingo games and local commercials aren’t paying the bills. His connection to Brennan is the most intriguing subplot the show has simmering.

The show has flaws beyond its genre cliches (the same cliches found in The Fighter). Thus far, the venerable Stacey Keach has been criminally underutilized (the fourth episode finally gives him some extended screen time). Also, Lights’ children are two-dimensional objects of his devotion. The difficult teenage girl, the precocious pre-teen, and the adorable innocent are stereotypes we’ve seen before in shows like Rescue Me and Brotherhood. Furthermore, the show often loses the battle between episodic plot lines and legitimate development of overarching subplots and themes. Still, there’s time for these characters and plots to become more richly drawn, as Lights Out comes into focus.

The crucial scene of the pilot intercuts Lights in his three roles (father, fighter, enforcer) and serves as a microcosm for the series. He’s just beaten up a cocky barfly for a fistful of dollars, and broken a delinquent gambler’s arm for the promise of a few more. He consoles his youngest daughter over ice cream, after she’s seen old fight footage: “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to keep you safe.” In his own way, he’s trying to do just that. Lights’ footwork, as he attempts to walk that path, is what keeps me watching, despite the show’s cuts and bruises.

Lights Out airs on FX, Tuesdays at 10PM.