By Darren Franich
January 12, 2011 at 07:00 AM EST

Image Credit: Greg Gorman/FXHolt McCallany has the body of a bruiser, and his IMDB resume is peppered with supporting roles where he played a background heavy. But his eyes are instantly memorable: Big, sad-looking, and just a little bit angry, as if McCallany were Michael Shannon’s younger, less-crazy brother. McCallany’s popped up in various places over the last two decades — he achieved the uber-rare Law & Order hat trick, and shaved his head for David Fincher twice (in Alien 3 and Fight Club) — but the actor has finally found a great showcase for his gruff, terse charisma in Lights Out, the boxing series that debuted last night on FX. Although it’s too early to tell if the show can make such a cinematic sport into fodder for a weekly TV show, the premiere was an intriguing hour of television that mixed manly grit with some surprisingly affecting slice-of-Recession-life family darma.

McCallany plays Patrick “Lights” Leary, an ex-champ besieged by problems. He decided to retire in his prime because his wife promised to leave him if he didn’t. Five years later, he lives in a big suburban house with a big suburban mortgage, where his main job seems to be handing out money: He’s paying for his wife’s medical school and his three daughters’ private school tuition. (And the girls always want more money: One daughter’s buying a new Eleanor Roosevelt biography, and one daughter’s buying a bikini wax. Kids!)

Meanwhile, in his nearby hometown Bayonne, he owns a boxing gym run by his father, and he’s working on a big construction project with his brother — it looked like some sort of dock project, although I’m sure we’ll learn more about it in future episodes. His brother is also his manager — huzzah for Wire alumnus Pablo Schreiber! — and Little Bro is having some IRS problems stemming from his divorce. Fortunately/unfortunately, a local member of the Legitimate Businessman’s Social Club needs someone with lots of muscle to get some money for him…and being famous is a plus.

So Lights has money problems, just like everybody else nowadays, and he has to do things he doesn’t like to get more money, just like everybody else nowadays. The best part about the season premiere of Lights Out was how easily the show managed to universalize the struggles of an ex-heavyweight champ. It quickly becomes clear that Lights is just someone who has done his absolute best to live the American Dream — start a family, start a business — and has the misfortune living during one of those brutal economic periods when the Dream goes out the window.

Lights Out bears a slight resemblance to The Sopranos, in which a seemingly normal suburban dad lives a double life involving incredible violence. There’s also a smidgen of Breaking Bad — we learned that Lights is suffering from the early stages of pugilistic dementia, with occasional memory problems that might get worse and probably won’t ever get better. It’s a testament to how surefooted the premiere was that that revelation didn’t feel like an incredible bummer. Far from it — the knowledge that his health was already declining was a jolt of energy, freeing Lights to make the tough, morally ambiguous decisions that inevitably make for good television.

Lights Out has an adorably FX-y quality to it. Everything looks gritty and washed-out. All the men are more macho (and all the women are more attractive) than they probably have to be. The one part of the show I’m not sure I entirely buy yet is Catherine McCormack’s character. Since Lights is made out to be such a local Bayonne boy, it’s hard to figure out how he met such a classy English lady who, by the way, seems to utterly despise boxing. But I’ll roll with it for now, especially since McCormack is such a fine actress. (The cast of Lights Out is a good reason to tune in — especially the great Stacy Keach as Grandpa Leary. Keach had some of the night’s best lines, and he knocked them into the stratosphere: “”I must’ve dozed off between naps.”)

The premiere ended with a darkly funny bit of crosscutting — Lights telling his youngest daughter that he doesn’t fight anymore, while a double flashback proved him terribly wrong — and it definitely left me ready for more. Viewers, did you like the premiere of Lights Out? Will it fill the noir-comedy-tragedy hole in your heart left behind by Terriers? On a scale of Rocky to Rocky V, how would you rate the show so far?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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