“Pilot” and Beyond
January 12th, 2011
The central contradiction in FX’s newest drama series, Light Out, is not uncommon in serial dramas. It is a show about the tension created during times of great stress, when individuals are forced to choose between the path which is “right” and that which allows them to keep their marriage, or pay off their debts, or survive another day. And yet, while the show wants us to empathize with Patrick “Lights” Leary and his decision to take the path of least resistance (and least blows to the head) and the forces threatening to pull him back in, the show is actually more like his younger brother. The show doesn’t really have the same sense of tension, the same pull in different directions: it knows what needs to be done, and lays a clear path which lacks much of the ambiguities which plague its central figure.
I don’t call this a “contradiction” to suggest that it undermines the series tremendously – Lights Out is a fine series, one which grows over the course of its first five episodes and eventually finds moments which do more than echo great drama series of the past decade. Those echoes are not without value, and with generally strong performances and some solid action the show does not come across as a blatant copy so much as a prestige pastiche (a pastige, if you prefer), but there always remains the sense that the show is following a decipherable logic. Characters fit into fairly small boxes, boxes we understand better than we would in an ideal situation, and the conclusions they come to are logical more in terms of pre-existing tropes than in terms of human behavior.
And yet, as I think the “Pilot” demonstrated quite nicely, there is value in treading over familiar ground so long as it still provides a certain thrill. While it may not always transcend its genre trappings, and has some down moments throughout its first five episodes, Lights Out is the kind of show that breeds appreciation if not necessarily fandom. I didn’t feel as if I needed to watch one more episode, but once I turned it on I didn’t start looking at the clock to see when it might be over. It doesn’t exactly pull you in but it doesn’t push you away either, and while that distance creates some of the resistance to the series you may see above, it also creates room to let the show sort of settle; it’s room that I’m hoping the series uses to its advantage in the remainder of its first season, as there’s plenty of potential to work with here.
[Spoilers for the Pilot, and some vague comments on subsequent episodes, to follow]
The best sequence in the pilot is easily the moment where Lights’ altercations with both Roger the Dentist and the bar patron are intercut with his conversation with his youngest daughter about her fight with Death Row Reynolds. It’s just a really smart scene, one which goes beyond the hypocrisy of his speech given his later behavior. What becomes more clear as the series goes on is that in some ways the speech isn’t hypocritical at all: while it is seemingly contradicted by his attack on Roger and his fight with the mouthy drunk, those are not the same as boxing. In the boxing ring, fighting was a way to make a living; in the other two examples, fighting was a way to survive both financially and mentally. While he asks if the patron has any money he’s willing to put on the fight, the money was never the motive: he just doesn’t want to seem as if he’s only fighting because he wants to punch someone in the face, which in some ways would seem more reckless. And while money was certainly the motive for his visit with Roger, his decision to break his arm seems to go beyond the call of duty, saying less about Lights’ financial situation and more about his mental situation.
Lights is a broken man, a man whose identity has been defined by a sport that is no longer truly a part of his life, and Lights Out is a show about his attempts to put the pieces back together. This is not a process that comes easily, especially when he remains unsure what the pieces might look like. He imagines getting back into the ring, which he wife explicitly forbids, but he has to be willing to follow any option. While the extent of the hole that that the Leary family finds themselves in becomes more clear as the season goes on, the show also burns through several alternatives which could get them back into the ring figuratively while skirting around the fact that this would not be a TV show if it wasn’t not leading to Lights getting back in the ring literally. Eventually, you will come to the same conclusion that any normal person would: in order for the show, and the family, to survive, Lights needs to risk his life to make his comeback.
The inevitability of that moment should not be seen as a narrative deterrent – despite the weight of that anvil, the episodes I’ve seen provide plenty of dramatic action despite the inevitability of each alternative’s failure. The show has no illusion about its debt to numerous shows which came before it, and so it never attempts to ratchet up the tension around a particular event without also tempering our expectations: there’s usually someone who lays the groundwork for the more reasonable turn of events, setting the stage for things to be resolved without jumping through hoops in the process. It’s a quiet show, at least relative to what you might expect from a show about such a violent sport, and the result is that even the least interesting characters never threaten to take over the entire story. PabIt elo Schreiber’s no-good brother is a walking cliche, and yet the show sort of accepts the way he operates. I love the way the show doesn’t make a big deal out of the fact that he has sex with women in order to get Lights various gigs (like the Karpet King commercial), just sort of letting the viewer make the connection – it doesn’t give the character any more depth, but it does allow the show to use the character in ways which adds depth to the viewing experience if not the story itself.
The show knows how to sell the show, in other words. I think there’s a keen understanding of how to work with the story that has been chosen, highlighting its strengths while accepting its weaknesses if not entirely avoiding them. I don’t think that any of the three children are without their annoying moments, and Theresa (like Skyler White and others before her) lacks a sense of independence from the central narrative, but I generally like the characters based on their performances and on small moments of truth amidst the episodes (with Ryann Shane getting to do particularly strong work in the fifth episode of the season in perhaps the most transcendent movie the show has found to date). Elsewhere, strong supporting performances bolster the tropes considerably, with both Reg E. Cathey (best known for playing Carcetti’s Chief of Staff on The Wire) and Bill Irwin (who I last saw in a great supporting turn in Rachel Getting Married) breathing life into character types which could have sunk the show dead if handled improperly. Ground it all in Holt McCallany’s shrewd lead performance, and you have a strong dramatic ensemble which can elevate the material above its familiarity.
I’d argue the pilot is more good than great, and I don’t think the series has yet to achieve the latter consistently through five episodes. There are certainly great moments, moments that take me out of the familiarity and show me something unexpected or which seems to speak only to this show and its characters, but elsewhere it feels as if it has yet to find its own identity. And yet because it isn’t trying to find that identity too early, it ends up sort of trapped: the lack of ambition means that it doesn’t yet have one of those eureka moments when the pieces fall together, but its lack of instability means that it also lacks a moment which makes you question whether the show has what it takes (although next week’s second episode comes close, delivering the most tropetastic effort of the bunch).
In the end, Lights Out has a sort of quiet confidence about it. I don’t know if the show is going to linger as your week goes on, and whether you’ll sit anticipating the next episode with baited breath, but there was something satisfying about seeing this story begin to unfold, something satisfying enough that I would like to see it finish unfolding as well.
- I knew that the kids were familiar, but now I know why: the actress who plays Ava played Libby on Royal Pains, while the actress who plays Katie played Ella on Fringe.
- Some strong work from Stacy Keach as well, here – it didn’t really strike me in the pilot, but as the season goes on it became clear that the character is nicely drawn in terms of his physical/mental condition. He’s still got his wits about him, but he’s fragile enough physically that it creates a certain degree of anxiety. Keach walks that line quite nicely, and I think the show was smart to have him sort of straddling the line between dependence and independence.
- I know some critics saw the entire season before writing their reviews, and those reviews tended to be pretty positive – don’t know how often I’ll be dropping in on the show during the season, but I’ll be sure to offer some thoughts should I get a chance to look at subsequent episodes in the weeks ahead.