Craig Blankenhorne / FX
Craig Blankenhorne / FX
Did you catch last night's premiere of FX's Lights Out, starring Holt McCallany as Patrick "Lights" Leary, a former heavyweight boxing champion who's fallen on hard times? Pretty good, huh? We thought so, too, so we caught up with series boss Warren Leight for a look at the thinking behind the brutal pugilism and the emotional family stories. Why would Lights get back in the ring after all this time? And what might a return to pro boxing to do his life, wealth and health? Read on for a spoiler-free preview of the rest of the season, straight from the show runner himself...
WHAT IT'S ABOUT
The story of "Lights" Leary is meant to be identifiable to everyone in this day and age of economic uncertainty. As Leight explains, "[Leary's financial struggle] is basically what life is like for everybody these days, but on top of that, Lights is getting physically beaten up. The reason I was pulled into this is because boxing is a great metaphor for how most Americans have had the s--t beat of out of them the last three years. It's tough. It's tougher to provide for your family. This show is about what a man would do to provide for his family, what risks would he take. It's also about a guy's second act and all that, but boxing gives you a dramatic story, and because boxing is so marginalized, I think it works for a metaphor for post-industrial America. We're all on the ropes."
As for the origin of the show, the original idea for a FX boxing drama was from executive producer Ross Fineman, who knew the Quarry brothers, Irish-American boxers who "suffered terribly" from pugilistic dementia. Leight says, "For some reason he thought this would be a good idea for a series." (He was right!)
For their part, the boxing community has welcomed the series with open arms. Leight says, "We had this event for Lights Out at Grand Central Station. There were six former world champs there: Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes, Gerry Cooney, Lennox Lewis, Micky Ward, Wladimir Klitschko...and one of the rather large men says, 'This looks good. This looks like someone is finally going to tell our whole story, not just what happens in the ring.' They're all sort of like, "Maybe this will be good for boxing. I hope this will be good. Best of luck.' Like a lot of other marginalized communities, it's very close-knit, very supportive of each other. And they're really warriors."
Frank Ockenfels III / FX
WHO'S THE GOOD GUY?
In many ways, Lights Out is about the appeal of Holt McCallany, a veteran character who's put in years of good work playing detectives, soldiers and beefy toughs of every stripe. Says Leight, "I knew that Holt was undeniable in the role, and I just wanted to make sure that he was surrounded with the right cast and that his character was a hero, not an anti-hero. A hero doing something he feels bad about. He's in a bad situation but he knows right from wrong, and that makes it worse for him."
By season's end you'll see that the series focuses on three families: Lights' blood family, his family with his wife, and the "family" of another boxer who will not be identified here, to save your spoiler-virgin eyes. As Leight puts it, the conflicting expectations of Lights' two families put him in a particularly perilous position: "I like that Lights has got the boxing family of origin; and then the daughters, the wife and the big house. We moved the pilot to New Jersey when we redid it and you can be 40 minutes apart [in New Jersey] and be in totally different worlds. There's a real implicit culture of corruption, that works really well for a boxing."
Frank Ockenfels III / FX
WHO'S THE BAD GUY?
As you'll come to learn over the course of the first season's 13 episodes, Lights' championship opponent, Richard "Death Row" Reynolds (Billy Brown) is not the thug his nickname would lead you to believe he is. Leights says, "These [boxers] are thoughtful, articulate and complicated. They're brutes but they're often very empathic. They're not what I expected when I started this, and I found them much more interesting than the cliche."
Indeed, Death Row is more similar to Lights than he is different, and you'll come to root for both boxers before too long. So if D-Row isn't the bad guy, who is? We asked Warren Leight that very question and he told us it's about more than what happens in any particular bout.
Says Leight, "[The sad story is that] these guys end up in poverty and there's this permanent group of people who make money of off fighters." In the case of Lights Out, the fellow in question appears to be Reg E. Cathey's poetic promoter Barry Word. Leight says that the shadowy characters on the edge of the boxing ring have outsize influence on what happens inside the ring and more importantly, in the lives of the boxers they manage. Leight says, "We actually talked to a boxer who worked for the mob equivalent of Don King in the 1950s. [They would say,] 'Maybe you should take a rest, this fight? You don't need to get hurt.' I asked if they would ask them to take a dive and he said, 'You knew who they were, and they knew where you lived. They'd come sit next to you in your restaurant. You didn't fear them, but you paid them respect.' We talked to a couple guys who were trained by their dads, and their dads stole from them. It's tough."
And it's not just about individual promoters taking advantage of individual boxers. The entire system profits everyone except the boxers themselves, who are treated almost as chattel property. As Leight puts it, "They box until their brains or bodies are shot, and then they're discarded. Boxing is the only professional sport without a union...there's never been a successful attempt to unionize boxers." (Somewhere Norma Rae is frowning.)
So what's your take on Lights Out? Are you interesting in seeing more? What else do you want to know about the series? Hit the comments to discuss, and check back soon for more scoop on this show!
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