For the past decade, cable networks such as HBO, FX , AMC and Showtime have been embroiled in a competitive struggle to produce the best programming. HBO continues to produce strong dramas, and AMC’s “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” are among the best shows on TV. However, FX remains on top in terms of consistent quality, especially with its new boxing drama “Lights Out” and its Southern crime show “Justified,” which has just entered its second season.
“Lights Out” is essentially a boxing film in the vein of “Rocky,” but extended to 13 hours. While this might seem like a bad idea, the story of Patrick ‘Lights’ Leary (Holt McCallany), a boxer forced into retirement because of an ultimatum from his worried wife and pushed back into the ring because of the recent economic downturn, is already a strangely gripping slow burn of a program with a spectacular cast.
Usually cast as a stock intimidating thug, McCallany is revelatory as Lights, instilling his character with a weary soulfulness and easy charm even while his character realizes just how much he misses hitting people. McCallany’s versatility is on display in the first episode’s climatic scene, which intercuts scenes of Lights bonding with his daughter with moments where he breaks a dentist’s arm for a loan shark and beats a man senseless outside of a bar.
The rest of the cast is equally strong. “The Wire” alums Pablo Schreiber (as Lights’ financially irresponsible brother) and Reg E. Cathey (as a sleazy fight manager) are both fantastic. Cathey clearly enjoys his character’s inherent smarminess.
“Justified,” on the other hand, has just entered its second season. Timothy Olyphant stars as U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, a cowboy hat-toting, effortlessly badass character who couldn’t be a better match for Olyphant’s sharp wit and charisma. “Justified” gives us Olyphant’s most memorable character yet by essentially taking his constantly angry sheriff from HBO’s “Deadwood,” infusing him with a sense of humor and updating him to modern-day Kentucky.
In its first season, “Justified” suffered from focusing a bit too much on stand-alone stories after a fantastic pilot, turning into a typical cop procedural. Halfway through the season, the show quickly became more serial and much more compelling as a result. Season two is more streamlined, quickly introducing its seasonal arc while also working in a case of the week for Givens and his fellow marshals to deal with. The season’s serialized story line deals with a family of pot dealers led by actress Margo Martindale.
Martindale’s Mags Bennett is a new addition to an already strong cast. Ruthless drug kingpin is not the first thing that comes to mind when one looks at Martindale, but she effortlessly sells her character’s particular mix of deep-fried Southern maternity and ruthless business savvy. Also memorable are Walton Goggins’ reformed criminal and fellow newbie Jeremy Davies.
With “Lights Out” and the new season of “Justified,” FX continues a stellar television season. “Lights Out,” which airs on Tuesdays, is halfway through its first season while “Justified” is only two episodes in, but both shows are quickly becoming some of the best on television.