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Super Punch-Out!

By Dan Saipher | TV | January 24, 2011 |

By Dan Saipher | TV | January 24, 2011 |

My earliest recollection with the off-shoot network F/X came as an adolescent, desperately clinging to my sadomasochist need to be scared shitless from reruns of “Fox Mulder Fights My Nightmares”. That little Fox-owned shack with seemingly one dour projectionist (and an extensive VHS collection) flipped through a few logos and catchphrases without anything substantial offered until 2002. That year, before Don Draper and Flight 815, the network took a chance developing shows with content usually reserved for the premium channels.

It’s certainly easier to preach our benedictions on the altar of the shows we love, like “Sons of Anarchy” or “Nip/Tuck”, but don’t forget they’ve put some duds out there. Anyone remember “Lucky”? Or “Over There”? Care to sum-up your favorite skit from “The Orlando Jones Show”? F/X’s “best” shows have even shown a tendency to waver in their plaudits. “SoA” received a lukewarm reception in its first season before picking steam, while “Nip/Tuck” lost plenty of steam at the end of its run. Hell, I still stand by the early seasons of “Rescue Me”, before the show attempted to turn itself into “Doctor Faustus Joins the FDNY” and everyone ran out of new people to sleep with.

So where does “Lights Out” ultimately fit in? Off the heels (whether or not they want to admit it) of The Fighter, the show centers around Patrick “Lights” Leary (Holt McCallany), ex-boxing champion and dutiful father of three daughters (poor bastard…), as he *sarcastic wink* ages gracefully behind the embattlements of a suburban castle. “Lights” is introduced as a slab of meat on a butcher’s table, all dried rust-colored blood trails and purple-pummeled bruises. We stare at the lifeless monolith until his wife snaps off smelling salts under his nose to retrieve him from the underverse. The former champ lost, “robbed” on a split-decision we’re reminded of throughout the episode, before his wife Theresa (Catherine McCormack) pulled him out of the sport with an impassioned ultimatum: boxing or your family.

The opening scene hangs on us for more reasons than a near-death beating. We’re led to believe that Lights Leary could have paid the ultimate price; he could have lost everything on that table but is instead given a chance to finish his life. But in reality, the first episode is a straight up demolition truck through every facet of his life that he quit boxing to protect. Fast forward five years. His teenage daughters are just beginning to rebel, his father (Stacey Keach) has stopped his fun-loving torture of Christopher Titus retreated in his advanced age to a recluse. There’s a slimy wannabe-super-agent at the helm of a failing gym and a real estate development gone under, who, oh yeah, happens to be his brother (Pablo Schreiber, aka Nick Sobotka). And that oh-so-convincing wife is too encumbered by the burdens of a burgeoning medical career to see into forthcoming financial ruin. Everything is down. Depressingly so. Overdue mortgage, expensive private school, and possibility that Lights’ brain might not have much time before a lifetime of blows to the head catch up with him. In the face of all this, we can’t help but see the doubt on the former champ’s face; should he have gone all out to win his last fight and die on top, or suffer the indignations of being a Bingo call-man and a failed provider?

All of this works by riding the broad shoulders of McCallany. You’ll no doubt recognize him, either from his extensive collection of one-offs on network procedurals or perhaps from one of the most rousing and legendary battle cries since Henry stood against the French in the wooded muck of Agincourt. Yes, he is the man who pierced our hearts with the words, “His name is Robert Paulson.” Physically, he certainly fits the bill, with a pair of cold and shark-like grey eyes, set above a battered nose and a jaw line you could break open the gates of Minas Tirith with. He intimidates, he plays the celebrity, and never fails to convince us as an athlete and prize-fighter. Shreiber works his role well, fighting the family’s shared downturns with apologetic optimism and knowledge of dodging the proverbial IRS hammer. He stinks of low-class hustler, and even though you want to believe him, that the next turn is right around the corner, he knows how to push his big brother’s buttons when the dirty work is all that’s out there.

Much as I love McCallany getting a shot in a tailored-made role, there are still too many questions before I see myself parked in “Lights Out“‘s weekly timeslot. First and foremost; whose leg do you have to hump to get a joke on this show? I’m not appealing for a foppish jester or a wacky, free-spirited aunt, but even the weather seemed perpetually gray. Alright, spare me bad puns and any prizefight-inspired quips (“Baby, we’ve got a puncher’s chance!”) and offer up something to make me crack the silence with a laugh. And despite the dearth of boxing on TV in any form, we’re still cycling through retreaded plot elements that Stallone left 40 years ago. In one of the fight flashbacks, Leary refuses to play defensive and safe to win in the last round, echoing the speech from Apollo’s mid-round corner before Rocky finished him off in Rocky II. The house, the wife that he has to quit his sport for, the up-and-corner he’s training for a title shot, all of it eerily reminiscent of the life and times of Balboa.

The timeline for this series’ season is laid out in front of us. We’ll be seeing just how far Lights Leary sinks until he gives in to “the comeback”, the cliché that guides every sports story about the man who once was. I’m going to leave you with a personal reflection for you to ingest, discuss it as you will from whatever angle.

“Jim Jeffries must now emerge from his Alfalfa farm and remove that golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face. Jeff, it’s up to you. The White Man must be rescued.”
—Jack London

Now put that into the context of “Lights Out”. Still claiming he was the better man five years ago, and now we’re going to build up a season of television rooting for the family-oriented Irishman against his enemy; who, by all we’ve been privy to see in preview trailers, is a brash talking black man who points a machete and calls out our hero as a punk. Is it nostalgic to go through the Rocky versus Apollo points? Or is it just an oversight still locked in an old stereotype?

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