By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2011; 6:39 PM
It's an unfair match, unfortunately: FX's heartfelt if occasionally sluggish new boxing drama, "Lights Out," arrives just as the culture is preoccupied with "The Fighter," director David O. Russell's magnificently acted, thrillingly taut film based on the real-life story of a junior welterweight's unlikely comeback.
"Lights Out," which premieres Tuesday night, is a fictional story about an Irish Catholic heavyweight champ in New Jersey (Holt McCallany) who comes out of retirement to avoid bankruptcy and restore his wounded pride. It doesn't have too much in common with "The Fighter," but it has just enough to seem redundant.
That's because all boxing stories - whether they are two hours long or, as with "Lights Out," a 12-episode season - share elemental trajectories that make them blur together in the ring: From a prologue of triumph comes defeat, followed by a long nadir of soul-searching rumination on boxing's beautiful blood ballet, followed by the inexorable return to the fight, with the slow-motion beads of sweat flying through the air while camera strobes flash. All of it leading inevitably to the cathartic release of the comeback.
Too much boxing - a favorite not only of film but of lugubrious sportswriting - can be a challenge for those of us who have a limited appetite for the sport's glory and the hardheaded stereotypes who populate the genre.
McCallany is Patrick "Lights" Leary, who calls it quits at age 35 after a losing his title in a match with a bitter rival. His wife, Theresa (Catherine McCormack), a physician's assistant, stitches up the oozing goose egg above his eye and issues an ultimatum: retire, move home and focus on being a father to their three daughters - or she's leaving him.
"Lights Out" begins five years after that night. Patrick, now 40 (looking 50), is a househusband, and his wife is in med school. By day, he runs an eponymous boxing gym with his father and former coach, played by the stalwart Stacy Keach.
One by one, a parade of boxing-drama cliches make themselves known: Patrick's no-good brother Johnny (Pablo Schreiber) has mismanaged the champ's $12 million fortune and is in trouble with a variety of bookies, thugs (including veteran stage actor Bill Irwin) and a big-time, Don King-esque promoter (Reg E. Cathey).
Everything Patrick counted on as a retired fighter has fallen apart: A real-estate investment has withered in the economy. Cars are being repossessed; credit cards are rejected; the girls' private-school tuition is due; the bank may foreclose on the McMansion.
People who love boxing will love "Lights Out," but people who hold boxing in a "kinda sorta" regard should give the show a round or two and see if they like it. FX is riding an artistic high these days, and the network rarely commits to mediocre television, as seen with such recent triumphs as "Sons of Anarchy," "Justified" and "Terriers."
McCallany's hangdog performance is often perfectly understated and lunky as we follow Patrick through a series of subtle blows: appearances in mattress commercials and at bingo halls; a CAT scan to see if he's suffering from the early signs of pugilistic dementia. Finally, to make ends meet, Patrick takes the shady job of intimidating a dentist who's behind on his bookie payments. (And by intimidating, I mean breaking the guy's arm.)
Like "The Fighter," "Lights Out" is best when it's not about boxing and is instead about a man having a midlife crisis.
But of course, it's about boxing, all leading to Patrick's decision to fight in a rematch against "Death Row" Reynolds, the rival who knocked him out in the title fight that led to his retirement.
Though deliberately and even artfully paced, "Lights Out" also feels protracted. It has difficulty establishing momentum in its first few episodes, even with a smattering of intriguing subplots and story lines, and no one character exerts that intangible ability to make us keep watching. Patrick "Lights" Leary is something to see in the ring, but he's better and more watchable in the kitchen and on carpool duty. I guess that means I side with his wife: It's time to hang up the gloves.
Lights Out (one hour) premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on FX.