TERRY GROSS, host:
Tonight the FX network presents a new drama series called "Lights Out," about a retired heavyweight boxer contemplating a comeback.
Our TV critic, David Bianculli, says it's a very good show, and so far a very good year for television.
DAVID BIANCULLI: I'm not sure what's going on here, but I definitely approve. In the first week of 2011, the Showtime cable network gave us the premiere of "Episodes," the Matt LeBlanc comedy that may end up as the best new comedy series of the year. And now, in the second week of 2011, the FX network gives us "Lights Out" - which may well end up, 50 weeks from now, as the best new drama series of the year. This much fresh quality television so early in the year? I've never seen anything like it. But I love what I'm seeing.
"Lights Out," on the surface, has the same basic template as "The Fighter," the new movie starring Mark Wahlberg. That film is about a boxer, his chance at a title shot, and the tough-as-nails, hot-tempered, loose-cannon family that's in his corner - for good and for bad. Same premise in "Lights Out," except this time there are other issues involved - like money and mobsters.
"Lights Out" is created by Warren Leight, who ran season two of "In Treatment" for HBO. His more significant credit, though - and one that applies more directly - is that he wrote the fabulous Tony Award-winning Broadway play "Side Man," about a jazz musician and his son. That play really dove into family dynamics in a big way, while also exploring -and explaining - an intense type of artistic dedication. What "Side Man" did with jazz, "Lights Out" does with boxing.
The star of the TV series is Holt McCallany, playing Patrick Leary, a heavyweight champ. In the opening scene, his wife Theresa, played by Catherine McCormack, begs him to retire after a brutal loss in the ring. He does, and the series cuts to five years later. Patrick's ex-boxer brother, played by Pablo Schreiber, is now his business manager, and their father runs a local boxing gym that Patrick bought with his prize money. But that money has all dried up, as Patrick admits, while driving home his dad, played by a perfectly crusty Stacy Keach.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Lights Out")
(Soundbite of traffic)
Mr. STACY KEACH (Actor): (as Pops) See my kid in the ring? I'm telling you, with a little time Omar could go all the way.
Mr. HOLT MCCALLANY (Actor): (as Patrick Leary) I need to talk to you.
Mr. KEACH: (as Pop) He reminds me of your brother coming up. Doesn't have the reach.
Mr. MCCALLANY: (as Patrick Leary) Did you know that was IRS in today?
Mr. KEACH: (as Pop) Well, I'll tell you what I told your brother. I've seen the IRS come after fighters all my life. You don't play cute with them. Whatever they say you owe, you just pay. You listening to me?
Mr. MCCALLANY: (as Patrick Leary) I'm broke, dad.
Mr. KEACH: (as Pop) What?
Mr. MCCALLANY: (as Patrick Leary) I got nothing to pay them with. It's all gone.
Mr. KEACH: (as Pop) How?
Mr. MCCALLANY: (as Patrick Leary) I don't really know.
Mr. KEACH: (as Pop) Does Theresa know?
Mr. MCCALLANY: (as Patrick Leary) No. And she's not gonna.
Mr. KEACH: (as Pop) It was her fault in the first place. I mean I love her, but that was big money on the table and she took you out of the game.
BIANCULLI: McCallany is totally believable as the former heavyweight. The actor has real experience as a boxer, which is obvious, but he's also got the weary credibility of someone who's been through a lot. For the same reason, I love that Keach was cast as the father. He played a washed-up boxer in "Fat City," a movie made way back in 1972, and every line in his face seems to be acting the part.
The rest of the supporting cast - the unsavory characters who help, hurt or tempt Lights along the way - is just as good. Some are from "The Wire" or "Oz." Others - like Bill Irwin, who's usually clowning around, but plays it menacingly straight here as a white-collar mobster�- are impeccably, inventively cast.
FX sent out all 13 episodes of this first season for review, and it's obvious why. They keep getting better and better, and the path to the hoped-for comeback bout is anything but straightforward. Each episode ends at the closing credits with a boxing-ring bell going off, like it's signaling the end of another round. And often, based on what you've just watched, it feels that way. You'll want to head back to your neutral corner and take a rest. Not only after the scenes that take place inside the ropes, but all of them. "Lights Out" is that intense - and that good.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of TVWorthWatching.com, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.