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New year means new television debuts

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Matt Leblanc returns to television in Showtime's Episodes
  • Matt Leblanc returns to television in Showtime's Episodes


We're always on the lookout for new TV trends, so here's one we think you should know about: Vomit is out; bloody noses are in. At least, that's the case with three new television series that begin their (hopefully long) runs next week.


LIGHTS OUT (FX)


You'd expect blood from Lights Out, an hourlong drama about a former heavyweight boxing champion who finds that, five years removed from his last fight, his money is rapidly running out. What you might not expect – and what makes this show so satisfying -- is the depth and intelligence used to present the subject matter.

Holt McCallany plays Patrick "Lights" Leary, a genuinely decent guy and onetime great fighter whose final bout, a brutal slugfest, ended with him losing by split decision. Afterward, his wife (Catherine McCormack) gave him an ultimatum: Retirement or divorce. He chose to stay with her and their three daughters, but between the mansion, private schools, medical school (for the Mrs.), building a gym (for his dad and brother), creating a real estate development and so on, the millions he won in boxing didn't go as far as he'd hoped.

That forces Lights to take on some unpleasant tasks, like debt collection, selling souvenirs on a home-shopping channel and considering getting back in the ring at age 40.

What we get is the portrait of a man trying to hang on to his dignity and way of life -- not necessarily for himself but for his family. He doesn't want pity or handouts; he just wants others to be happy.

Rarely do we see boxers portrayed this way. They're typically either punch-drunk (and Leary does fear the onset of pugilist's dementia) or corrupt loudmouths (this show has them, too). But Lights is sensitive, bright and aware of his place in the world. You can't help but feel for him.

McCallany's eyes emit sadness, and he infuses his character with mountains of empathy. But just when you're thinking that Lights is too good to be true, he does something that brings him back to Earth. It's a completely engrossing portrait.


SHAMELESS (Showtime)


The bloody nose in Shameless comes from a family member, which fits this rarest of TV shows -- the poor, functional family. The six Gallagher children live and breathe together despite Dad, a raging alcoholic played by William H. Macy, and mom (who has run off). They pool their resources, look out for one another and demonstrate a vein of loyalty that makes them richer than most families.

Now, no one will look at the Gallaghers and think: Gee, I'd like to live like them. Dad is as likely to be brought home by the police passed out and soiled as he is to head-butt one of his kids. They're in constant danger of having their utilities shut off. They have few comforts.

But thanks to the oldest child, Fiona (played with complete self-confidence as well as more than a little fear by Emmy Rossum), the family works. You stop thinking of them as poor and screwed up and wind up considering them admirable for having the courage to face every day. And you like all the kids, particularly the exceptionally bright Lip (Jeremy Allen White) and Ian (Cameron Monaghan), who's coming to grips with his homosexuality.

Shameless is based on a British series, and it's easier to imagine it working there than here, where we like sanitized versions of poverty. This will be difficult viewing for most, but those who like grit -- and the occasional bloody nose -- in their entertainment will love this show.


EPISODES (Showtime)

The third new series coming up, and the least likely to produce a bloody nose (though it does), is Episodes, a half-hour comedy about Sean and Beverly Lincoln, a successful British husband-and-wife writing team who are lured to America by an executive eager to bring their show to his TV network.

L.A. and everything it entails completely seduce Sean (Stephan Mangan) and repulse Beverly (TamsinGreig). But together, they must deal with a bevy of incredible phonies and liars, including an oily network executive named MercLapidus (the perfect John Pankow) who oozes insincerity and his second in command, Carol (Kathleen Rose Perkins), who makes every conversation and issue about her.

But the real star here is Matt LeBlanc, who plays a passive-aggressive version of himself. He's egomaniacal, insecure and very, very funny. When the Lincolns bring their show to America, it's called Lyman's Boys and it's about an eloquent prep school headmaster who's hopelessly in love with the lesbian librarian. By the time LeBlanc and the network suits get through with the show, it's called Pucks!and it's about a prep school hockey coach (played by LeBlanc) who falls for a straight, buxom librarian.

Someone in this group deserves a bloody nose, and someone's going to get one.

Episodes finds a lot of humor in the hollow platitudes and loose morals of show business, and its inside-baseball nature might be a little too inside for some viewers. But maybe not. With Entourage ending its run this year on HBO, maybe this can serve as a kind of showbiz-show sequel.

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