To a degree, the first part of Lights Out’s first season has to be about eliminating all of Lights’ options, so he HAS to get back in the ring. And at the end of “Bolo Punch,” I’m not sure how many options he even has left. Omar has realized (somewhat abruptly) that he’s just not a boxer. The money situation grows more and more dire, with Theresa having pledged $50,000 to a church relief effort and then learning that, well, the family just doesn’t have it. To get Johnny out of his gambling trouble, Lights has to fight an MMA fighter and get even more in bed with Brennan (who puts up the money to cover Johnny’s bet, double or nothing, on Lights in the fight). Even the kids are affected, as their mother’s unable to ship the clothes they’ve collected for the relief effort because her credit cards are no good.
But there’s a sort of crushing sameness to all of these scenes all the same. After last week seemed to be about closing off Lights’ options, with Omar going down in the fight, it seemed like this week might be about Lights wondering just what he could do to bring his family’s financial health back up to par and being led to one, inevitable decision. (The title of next week’s episode, which some might see as a spoiler, certainly doesn’t help in this regard.) Instead, this episode was, again, about money problems, and while I think this show’s focus on money problems is one of the things that makes it worthwhile, there are also so few ways to write these kinds of scenes. Somebody doesn’t have enough money and ponders a way to get more of it. That method falls through. Rinse. Repeat. Though the characters going through these motions are intriguing and though the methods considered are unlike other shows (where it’s highly unlikely the protagonist would fight an MMA fighter), it’s still the same scene over and over and over.
But let’s start with the episode’s biggest story development and the one that paid the biggest dividends. After making Theresa the one thing standing in the way of Lights’ comeback in the first two episodes, the series pulled back last week to reveal just how much love is really present between the two spouses. That was a good move, I think, because it makes clear just why Theresa doesn’t leave when she finds out about the money problems in this episode. Now, she’s less of a fun-killing wife and more of a woman who’s invested in a situation where things haven’t turned out quite like she expected. The fight the two have in the kitchen about how little money they have (it seems the girls’ futures aren’t even provided for anymore) is one of those bracing fights people have in a marriage, where you know you both love each other, but you also know you’re up against something you might not be able to face down. Still, you put on a brave face because that’s what you do, both for the kids and each other.
The series’ attempts to make Lights into a kind of analogue for all of America’s financial woes have been hit-and-miss, but the scene where Theresa starts pulling out all of the things she thinks she might be able to sell to help chip away at the debts the family owes was a good one in this regard. This recent recession has made virtually everyone who’s not a multi-billionaire wonder what they can and can’t go without. Do you really need cable TV when you have the Internet and Netflix? Do you need this big of a house, or can the kids share a bedroom? Did things get too big, too fast? Obviously, the Leary family is living a heightened version of this, what with the giant mansion and expensive jewelry, but the basic principle is the same. They DON’T need all of this stuff. Corny as it sounds (and true as it is), all they really need is each other. They can get by, living at Theresa’s sister’s place for a while. They can get by without all of the nice things. We all can. It just hurts to try. But the moment when you finally do is like a breath of fresh air.
On the other hand, it’s less enjoyable to watch the continuing adventures of Johnny Leary, the man who would be accountant. The moment when Pops reveals that Johnny manages all of his savings, so if Lights needs a loan, he should just ask Johnny, is almost too much. I get that the series needs to eliminate all possible options for Lights, so he’s forced onto the one path he knows how to travel, but the utterly miserable situation he finds himself in grows more and more ridiculous with every episode. To a degree, I wonder if this couldn’t have been a show about a guy who saw himself running out of ways to make a buck, who hit some financial trouble, then just decided to get in the ring again because that was what he knew how to do. The attempts to corner Lights make him almost too saintly, even though he’s clearly done some pretty bad things over the years. (One of the things I like in a show like this is when the writers show they have a clear sense of the characters’ histories, and Theresa’s mention of her apology bracelets was a good way to suggest that Lights has not been the world’s best husband from time to time.) The pilot suggested this was a guy who resorted to violence when he didn’t know what else to do, and I’m not sure he didn’t pass the point of not knowing what else to do (other than take the rematch) last episode. This one felt like piling on.
Still, the show’s doing enough right and last week’s episode was solid enough to make me feel not so concerned. (And next week’s episode title certainly doesn’t hurt.) In particular, I like the way the show is giving all of this a feel of local flavor, a feeling that Lights’ neighborhood is a real place where the people in it have built relationships with each other over the years. I’m not sure how fair it is to compare this show to Terriers, as people seem intent on doing, since the two shows have vastly different goals, but they both have a very strong sense of place. Every time Lights goes into a Chinese food restaurant and talks to the people working there like he’s a long-time customer, it enhances the show’s feeling of taking place in a specific setting, the sense that we’ve just dropped in on these people for the first time, but they’ve been doing things for years before this. And it enhances that feeling, even if we don’t see that Chinese restaurant worker ever again. Lights Out is taking a little longer to get to the fireworks factory than I might, personally, like, but in so doing, it’s building an interesting world. And I’m willing to wait for that.
- I get the compulsion to compare this with Terriers, since they’re both FX shows, and Terriers was taken from us too soon. But I’m not sure it makes a lot of SENSE. Terriers was able to build up a head of steam early on because it was filled with stand-alone episodes that had only tangential relation to the overall arc. Had the finale been a disappointment (and it wasn’t), it wouldn’t have mattered because episodes like “Change Partners” or “Fustercluck” were so good on their own. Lights Out is very different, in that it’s trying to do something more gradual and tell one story spread over 13 episodes. Can we please give this show a season, before we start comparing its relative quality to other shows, particularly ones that do more standalone things?
- That said, I’m impressed with how the show is able to break its story into bite-sized chunks, so every episode has a concrete goal. If there’s increasingly a problem with the serialized drama format, it’s the fact that so many of them have episodes that feel vaguely formless, as though nothing is really happening. (Boardwalk Empire ran into this more than once; current champs Mad Men and Breaking Bad are always careful to have an episode-specific storyline that nonetheless contributes to the ongoing arc.) In Lights Out, you always know what the episode will be roughly structured around, and the episodes always come up with a way to give you a fight, which is probably why you’re tuning in in the first place.
- Speaking of fights, that fight with the MMA guy was more brutal than I was expecting it to be. I’m still a little shocked that Lights won, even when he resorted to trickery.
- I’m a little anxious to get some idea of who Johnny is beyond a screw-up who ruined a promising boxing career. Why does Lights keep giving him chances, beyond the fact that he’s his brother? Similarly, why does Pops seem to trust him implicitly, beyond the fact that he’s his son? Johnny doesn’t seem like that good of a liar. Theresa’s able to see right through him.
- We knew the Leary family is Catholic before this episode, but with this one (and the priest’s nice little guilt trip), the series joins the long, proud tradition of series with blatant Catholic themes, including St. Elsewhere, The Sopranos, and Rescue Me.