Every TV show has “the moment,” the point where you realize that you’re not just watching this thing episode-to-episode. You’re in this for the long haul, ideally for many seasons but at least for one. The moment rarely comes in the pilot, as the pilot is an expression of potential, as much as anything else. In the best shows, it usually comes somewhere in the first five or six episodes, though it may not be the same moment for everyone. (One of the few shows I can think of where probably 90 percent of the audience was hooked by the same moment is Lost, where the moment at the end of third episode “Walkabout” indicated this was going to be a very special show indeed.) The moment makes you rethink one of the major characters or lets you know the plot isn’t going to be as smooth of sailing as you thought it might be or shows off something this show can do that no other show can.
The moment in tonight’s episode of Lights Out is nothing flashy. Once it’s over, pretty much everything we thought the show was going to be is much the same as it was before it happened. But it’s a sequence executed with such skill and attention to detail that it throws everything that came before it into a new light. It’s the show assuring us that, yes, it’s going somewhere, and though some of the steps along the way might be familiar, the ride is going to be an entertaining one, guided by people who know what they’re doing when it comes to telling that story. The moment comes in the episode’s final passages, as the two stories that have been building throughout the episode come together in a nicely done sequence of cross-cutting.
The two strands of the story are thus: Lights’ 40th birthday is coming up, and his daughters and wife decide to make a “memory book” for the occasion. At the same time, the gym needs cash, so Pops and Johnny decide to push Omar up against the title holder, much earlier than he probably should be. Omar could, conceivably, beat the champ with the right training regimen, but he’s far more interested in building his own myth. Naturally, Lights gets involved, to make sure the kid doesn’t get his head torn off in the ring. (The suggestion to take over Omar’s training comes from Theresa, and I prefer this use of her—as someone who’s looking for ways to keep Lights out of the ring but also keep him engaged with his life and the people around him—to the much more shrill use in the last two episodes.) Lights manages to get Omar’s attention by cutting out all outside stimuli and letting him know Omar can only rely on himself in the ring, and from there, it seems like he’s created a boxer who just might win the fight, propelling himself to unexpected glory and the gym back into the black.
But here’s the thing: We KNOW Omar can’t win. If he wins, it solves too many of Lights’ problems, and there will essentially be no show. So the test of how the show handles this storyline comes from whether it can let on that it knows we know. It’s a complicated bit of business, one the show hasn’t entirely nailed in some of the series’ previous predictable segments, but I think it gets it just right here. The show doesn’t make the obvious choice to intercut between the fight and the birthday dinner. Instead, it cuts between the birthday dinner and the BUILD-UP to the fight. Lights opens his package and remembers his glory days, then tumbles into bed with his wife. Elsewhere, Omar gets ready to head out into the ring, accompanied by the pomp that precedes the fight. Pops thinks he just might be ready. It’s a nifty trick, cross-cutting between one man’s memories of his past and another man’s hopes for his immediate future. It’s not exactly a NEW trick, but it’s one that’s utilized very well here. Toss in all of the little bits of local color and character detail around the edges, and you have the best sequence the show has done to this point, one that effectively foreshadows what’s coming without directly stating it.
So what then? Well, nothing good. Omar goes out into the ring and holds his own, pushing the champ to 10 rounds, something no one thought was even possible. Lights, done having sex with Theresa, can’t sleep. So he gets up and wanders down to the living room, flipping on the TV. And that’s when he sees the old arrogance creeping back into Omar’s stance. Omar has the champ on the ropes, but he hasn’t knocked him out yet, and when he begins prematurely celebrating, the camp knocks him out. We knew something like this had to come, and the show played it as a fait accompli, but it still takes the wind out of our sails. All of the things that Omar winning could have taken care of are right back in the foreground of these characters’ minds. Money, the future of the gym, and the future of Lights’ career? All immediately pressing concerns again.
What I like about this sequence is the fact that we know it’s coming, and the show knows we know. It doesn’t hide the fact that Omar’s going to lose, planting the seeds of what will be his undoing early and often and using his quest to draw Lights further back into the world of boxing. The sequence leading up to the loss is all about drawing out the moment before the end, about making us feel this last moment when there’s a sense of hope that doesn’t involve Lights getting back into boxing. Now, obviously, we know what this show is building toward, but I think we needed this episode, particularly the scenes with Theresa and the kids, to give us a sense of the character’s history and the love within his family. Theresa comes off much more sympathetically in this episode than she has in the previous two, and the bits where she remembers how she met her husband are surprisingly moving.
I also liked the way this episode dragged us into the business of the world of boxing, turning the process of getting the fight into something almost methodical. Johnny has to worm his way back into the fight promoter’s good graces. Pops has to go off his recovery routine. The money is so important that the two seem unable to see that Omar’s not ready, but they’re also right that he could BE ready. It’s a nicely tense balance between just how ready these two people are going to be to exploit this hungry young kid and just how ready that kid is going to be to BE exploited. Pops and Johnny haven’t been much beyond the usual takes on these sorts of characters to this point, but this episode gives a better sense of their desperation. And that desperation is what will make Lights Out stand apart from other boxing narratives and make the final fight, whenever it comes, feel like that much more of a catharsis. And, thanks to that ending, I'm fully on board for whatever comes next.
- Plot point I don’t terribly care about: Lights’ iPod is found on the man who was killed at the end of last week’s episode. This whole plot is so by-the-numbers at this point that I have to hope it will find its way toward something more interesting.
- I also hope we get to know more about Reynolds as a person, rather than as an unseen antagonist. Having him show up at Lights’ house was a good start, but I want something from him other than “cocky boxer.”
- The insertion into the boxing world is one of the better things the show has going for it. I particularly like how Barry’s operation feels like it could be situated somewhere in the 1950s, with the jazz music and the swirling smoke and the love of boxing above all else. The more Lights Out can feel like a period piece that just happens to be set in the present, the better.