The problem with a TV show that plays better on DVD is that it plays better on DVD. The episodes are fine as week-to-week units, but the momentum they generate dissipates between weeks, instead of building as you plow through hour after hour. After this episode and the last one, I’m firmly on board the Lights Out train. The show’s gradual accretion of texture and detail is paying off in some big ways in these episodes, and this one, in particular, managed to introduce a new guest character who felt like he’d always been there and launched a satisfying new story arc that should keep the rest of the season fascinating. But when I tell my friends and family who bailed on the show early that they’re missing out now, they just shrug and assume it’s one of those things they’ll never get into. But they’re wrong! Lights Out was just taking its time at building a world and building characters, and now, it’s a wholly more satisfying show, and it never forced things to get here. Everything happened organically.
“Organically” could be a word used to describe a lot of FX programming. Shows on that network never feel like they have to cram too much into a single episode (at least since Nip/Tuck, that is), choosing instead to slowly build character and setting, until we’re more invested than we would be if we just learned everything all at once. Heck, we’re STILL getting information about the Leary/Reynolds fight that pushed Lights out of the boxing game for these five years, when that might have been a very effective way to just open the pilot. (Granted, we saw bits and pieces of that fight in the first episode, but we’re only starting to get the more complete picture from all angles.) Similarly, the show uses Death Row sparingly, even though he’s a regular. He’s another part of the world the series is building, another character who has a certain interest in Lights’ future career, and the show is right to keep his true motivations somewhat shadowy.
Tonight’s episode proceeds quite naturally from the end of last week’s. Pops is still refusing to train Lights, no matter how much his son tries to persuade him that he’s ready for the match with Reynolds. So Lights goes in search of a new trainer, a search that takes him to Warsaw, N.Y., where he meets Ed Romeo, the former trainer of Death Row, who’s been out of the game after Death Row fired him under mysterious circumstances. Now, he works with troubled teens, helping them gain confidence and a sort of stability inside of the ring. Lights takes a little time to work with some of the teenagers, and apparently, that’s enough for Ed to ditch his new business for a while and go move in with the Leary family. (This was my least favorite part of the episode; I did really want some explanation of how Ed could just take time off like that.) Ed talks about these troubled teenagers as broken machines that he needs to break down to component parts. Once he finds the real damage and fixes it, he can put everything else back together. And it sure seems he thinks of fighters—like Lights—in the same fashion.
What’s interesting about this episode is that Ed just might be the villain of the piece. The show plays him sympathetically, even giving us a look at the long scars down his arms from when he (presumably) tried to kill himself after he was fired by Death Row. But the situation is more fluid and complex than that. Lights doesn’t really have the time to completely change his fighting style, to pull himself apart and put himself back together. He’s got 10 weeks, and in those 10 weeks, his best bet would be to stick what he knows and attempt to hone it to a sharp point. Instead, he’s abandoning what his father taught him and going toward Ed’s new ideas. That might be fine if he had 10 months to train, but he doesn’t, and Johnny rightly points out to Pops that a fighter trying to shift styles on the fly is more likely than not going to get hammered.
Another thing that works well here is how it shifts all of the concerns about the fight last week to the background. Did Morales throw the fight at the behest of Brennan? We don’t find out. Pops and Johnny evidently write it off to the poor condition of Lights’ eye during the fight. (He shouldn’t have even been in the ring in that condition, according to Pops.) And Pops offers up some thoughts about how he doesn’t think he can be a trainer AND a father, about how watching his son get smashed in the head that many times really got to him. What I like about this is that it’s finally using most of the information we have against us. We know that once Pops finds out about Lights’ possible pugilistic dementia, he’s going to be ready to pull the plug on the fight. We know that if Brennan got Morales to throw the fight, that fact will come back to throw everything else into question. There was a tendency to underline things a little too heavily in the early going of Lights Out (this is true of most shows), but that’s not the case much anymore. The show is very smart about dispersing information, and that’s one of the things that is leading to its growth in confidence.
If there’s an element here that is less interesting, it’s the domestic issues on the Leary homefront. Having Ed hang out around the house is a good choice, I think, as he bounces off of the girls and Theresa fairly well, but it also led to that odd, odd scene where he was advising Theresa and Lights about how they should be having lots of sex. And the storyline with Ava wanting to go to the prom and stay overnight in New York afterward was a non-starter. Outside of Daniella, I’m not sure I’m terribly invested in either of the other daughters, who are mostly just there to provide us with the occasional reminder that Lights is a sensitive guy who loves his kids. Fortunately, this storyline didn’t really take up much of the episode’s running time, though if the show were to get a second season, I’d probably want to see the writers figure out a way to better integrate Lights’ domestic problems with the drama of his attempts to get back in the ring.
The thing that made this episode hang together, though, was Ed Romeo. Played by Oz vet Eamonn Walker, Romeo is a man who rarely lets his voice drift much above a harsh whisper. He always seems like he might start chastising his fighter, as much as he seems like he might break out into a hard-earned smile and a laugh or two. He’s a grim man, but he’s not oppressively grim (as the show could be in the early going), and his philosophies about life and boxing continue the show’s more intriguing bent in recent episodes, where the ring becomes a place where you express your approach to life as much as anything else. When you’re Lights, that means going straight ahead and keeping those punches true. When you’re Death Row, it’s something more holistic, seemingly (though we haven’t gotten a good chance to see him in the ring). And when you’re Ed, it’s all about a process of self-improvement, a constant journey toward betterment. The way you do your job says a lot about who you are. That may be the biggest theme of Lights Out in general and this episode in particular.
- A girl scout retreat? More like a Burmese sweatshop, am I right?!
- While I could have done without the Ava storyline, I did like the moment when her date arrived to take her to prom, and the family drew together for just a small moment before Lights had to go off on his own again. Moments like that underline the importance of the family to Lights more than him talking about how important they are possibly could.
- I would watch an Ed Romeo spinoff. I assume FX will not make this happen, since, well, the show’s ratings aren’t very good. But make it happen, FX!
- The series is really building up a solid roster of supporting players who can drop in at any moment and have something interesting to say or do. Now I just want to see Ed and Brennan share a scene, mostly because it would be fun to see Walker and Bill Irwin face off.
- "She also wanted to be a race car driver and a Muppet."