In this interview, Lights Out showrunner Warren Leight talks at length about how he sees the series as a way to parallel what’s happened in the United States since the great economic crash of 2008. And there may be something to this. While Lights was immeasurably richer than most of the people who are watching the show, he’s ultimately just as broke. The bank takes his wife’s car. When he deposits money, the IRS gobbles it up before he gets to see a cent of it. He’s taking every odd job he can find—from filming carpet commercials to beating dudes up for veteran of stage and screen Bill Irwin—and he’s just barely scrabbling along to stay above water. Even though he’s a former heavyweight champ, even though everybody he meets addresses him as such, he’s still just doing his best to hang on. And, yeah, that’s relatable for just about everybody.
And when this show focuses on the money troubles of Lights, it can be a little prosaic, but it’s undeniably moving. Here’s a guy who has been cast up onto the shore of a new world he doesn’t really understand, and he’s looking for things he can do to make his life and his family’s life better. The scenes where he tries to smooth things over with Brennan by doing a few small favors for the criminal or the scenes where he tries to puzzle out just how he’s going to stay afloat are surprisingly gripping. It’s rare for TV to delve this deeply into people with money troubles, and even though Lights lives in a giant mansion and seems to be able to give his family most everything they want, the juggling act is getting more and more precipitous. It’s just nice to see a show where the characters have to worry as much about money as most of the audience likely does, and it certainly helps that the actors make that fear so compelling.
But if there’s one element I’m not digging at this point in Lights Out’s run, it’s the Theresa character. I think Catherine McCormack is a real find, and I like that she has notes to play other than “constant nag,” but it does often seem like she’s just there to introduce obstacles to keep us from what we know is going to happen by the time the finale rolls around. We KNOW that Lights is going to get back in the ring. We KNOW he’s going to try to take back the title. And we KNOW that Theresa’s eventually going to come around and support her husband’s run at the title. These are all things that kind of have to happen for this to be an effective boxing series. (Well, maybe the last one doesn’t.) But by having Theresa constantly standing in the way of narrative momentum, she doesn’t just end up nagging her husband; she ends up keeping us from our fun, so we come to subconsciously dislike her as a character. There’s a better way to handle this. Hell, there’s a better way to handle this already present in the series, since Lights’ health concerns make a very good argument that what he’s doing is deeply destructive. And since his daughter, Daniella, knows about those health issues, it’s a nice way to rope in the element of family concern, too. But nope. We’re stuck with yet another fun-stealing wife on a cable drama.
Again, McCormack is good enough to make much of this work. You can always feel the tenderness beneath her rage, which isn’t always the case in these scenarios, and in the scenes where the two talk honestly with each other about what they want, she and Holt McCallany give you a good sense of how these two work as a couple. But there’s still an element of Theresa just being the show’s main way to keep us from getting to the preordained climax, and no one character can handle that much focus. Again, the scenes with Lights and his daughter, where she gets upset with him over how signs of boxer dementia keep appearing, are a stronger version of this, and I hope the show eventually slides more toward this read of the family scenes.
But, hey, the rest of “Cakewalk” was pretty darn solid, right? I particularly enjoyed Bill Irwin turning up as Brennan. Irwin’s a great, great actor, and I love the way he puts such interesting spins on all of his lines or the way he lays out to Lights just how much Lights caused him trouble and money with his stunt at the brunch. Plenty of shows would have ignored the fallout from that event, but this show both grasps that it needs to get rid of it as quickly as possible but can also make that a fairly intriguing plot point, especially when it comes to the show’s investigations of Lights’ fame. His fame makes it seem like it’ll be easy to just bury the story (he asks the reporter to stop looking into it, and it seems, for a time, like that will happen), but it also makes the story too potentially amazing to pursue. After all, if times are tough for boxers, they’re tougher for boxing writers. At newspapers.
The episode also gives us our first extended look at the current shape of Lights in the ring, as he takes on the young guy his father is so hyped up on as a possible contender. The show needs to nail the boxing sequences to have any hope of being taken seriously, and this one worked. It gave you a good sense of how Lights is a little rusty but also a good sense of how he’s been able to keep his game pretty tight since he was last in the ring. Sure, he works out, but how often does he spar, particularly with his wife not wanting him doing anything of the sort? The fight isn’t the prettiest in the world, but it lets us see, better than the pilot, that Lights is a force to be reckoned with when he’s in fighting trim.
And that’s what “Cakewalk” is here for, more than anything else. This is all about building these characters, building this world. We already have a pretty solid idea of where we’re headed, so the show is going to need to make us care about the struggles of these people along the way before we get reinvested in something as old and clichéd as the comeback fight. We’re already getting a good sense of who Lights is and what drives him, and the threat of his money woes is palpable. But in “Cakewalk,” we start to fill in the details around him. Who’s his dad? Who’s his brother? Who’s his (just met) sister? And how does his condition fit into the way he lives his life? There’s some great stuff here. I just wish the things standing in Lights’ way weren’t things I had seen millions of times before.
- Who’s the guy who plays the cop that’s on the take from Brennan? I feel like I’ve seen him in millions of things, but the FX screeners don’t include guest star info.
- Also, who recorded the cover of “Que Sera Sera” that played over the closing montage (of Lights at the birthday party)?
- Are we supposed to think the identity of the black guy’s shooter is a mystery? I mean, is there any way it’s NOT Brennan?
- Normally, having the main character be really good with kids is a lazy place to go, but McCallany seems to be so genuinely good with kids that it’s fun to see the kids overrun Lights at the birthday party.
- Here’s how stupid I am: I thought the cake Brennan had Lights pick up was ACTUALLY A CAKE.