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“It’s a family drama. It’s about my relationship with my wife and children.” – Holt McCallany about his character, Patrick “Lights” Leary
It’s the buzz of Cable TV. Lights Out (Tuesdays at 9 p.m. CST) is Fox Television and FX Production’s latest small-screen success. And it’s about a fictional Irish-American ex-heavyweight champion.
I know what you’re thinking: just another story about an Irish boxer.
This isn’t. The show couldn’t be further from Errol Flynn dancing around the ring in Gentleman Jim; so little of the show is even about boxing. But it is about fighting. And Patrick “Lights” Leary (played superbly by Irish-American actor Holt McCallany) is nothing if not a fighter. He has so much to fight about.
The forty-year-old son of Bayonne, New Jersey has five years of ring rust to remove as the show’s producers inch him slowly, trial after tribulation, back into the squared circle and a title rematch. By the end of the third episode Patrick is broke, thanks to his woefully amoral promoter/ brother, beholden to Irish loan shark (of all things) Hal Brennan, newly implicated in a murder, and in trouble with his wife “You quit or we quit,” insists the lissome Catherine McCormack, as his wife and soon-to-be medical doctor, Theresa Leary. Her demands are reasonable. Patrick is facing the possibility of the brain-wasting, trauma-induced disease of dementia pugilistica.
The drama only intensifies in the episodes to follow. As “Lights” takes up his pursuit of the title (“I have no choice”), he’s shown the door by his wife, subsequently sustains an eye injury, is menaced by a truly vicious upcoming opponent, and unwittingly has his ring future sold to the leg-breaking Brennan.
Up against it, he is.
So what’s an Irishman to do?
If given to stereotype, the show would focus hence on the mother of all boxing comebacks, complete with sweaty scenes of rope-skipping and gray morning roadwork. There’s almost too little of this and for a reason: Patrick Leary’s guiding light is his family, not his fists. If in reality the first Irish heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan was famous for his blustery appeal (“I can lick any man alive”), the world’s latest Irish champ, in story, wants nothing of it. “Do you know how much I love you?” he softly reminds his ever-defiant teenage daughter during a squabble. Stronger still is the intensity of quiet love his middle daughter Daniela (actress Ryann Shane of Philadelphia) tries to express towards him. With her precocious powers of discernment, she is painfully concerned about her father’s health. It’s no wonder. She has no greater role model for love of family than the ex-champ himself. Patrick Leary’s concern for his clearly aging father/manager (performed deftly by Stacy Keach, whose own role as a boxer in John Huston’s 1972 Fat City made him a star) is yet another example of Leary’s potential for good.
For Lights Out, family is the focus. Against the swagger of background scenes – Leary’s confrontation, on his driveway, with the man who took his title; a bar fight; a cage fight; and the broken limb of a welshing dentist – the theme of familial love will keep the show from sinking into stereotype. We are on familiar ground here as New Jersey was the backdrop of another renowned Irish fighter. James J. Braddock (1905-1974), who was the last heavyweight of Irish descent to hold the world championship. The travails of this punching Garden Stater were portrayed with heft by Russell Crowe in Ron Howard’s tear-jerking, Cinderella Man. For love of his family, Braddock too overcame adversity. After losing every cent in the 1929 stock market crash and beset by crippling arthritis, he took the hard road and fought his way from hardscrabble gloom to become the heavyweight champion of the world in 1935. Even in losing the championship two years later, this fairy tale winner was one of the few to knock down Joe Louis, arguably the greatest counterpuncher in history. Braddock went on to live a wonderfully envious and normal life with his family for nearly four decades.
New Jersey is also the home to the fictional family “The Sopranos.” Already with a convenient mob subplot ready for expansion, Lights Out may well go down the clichéd and larcenous road with
predictability of outcome. I’m hoping it doesn’t. How many current television shows portray an Irish family with decency and strength of message? Let this saga of the Celtic sock continue down a path of promise. In the meantime, my money’s on “Lights” Leary: box or not, win or lose, he’ll keep his family first in mind – and deed – as he walks the straight and
It’s what a real fighter does.