Questions I have after watching two episodes of “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll,” the new FX comedy created by and starring Denis Leary, which debuts tomorrow night at 10:
In what year does this show think it takes place?
Leary plays Johnny Rock, former lead singer of The Heathens, a band that had a meteoric rise and abrupt fall in the early '90s. Dave Grohl appears early in the pilot to explain that The Heathens were a huge inspiration for Nirvana.
But Johnny, in both past and present, sports a rooster haircut that hasn't been fashionable since Rod Stewart and Ron Wood abandoned it in the mid-'70s. The Heathens' signature song, which provides the show its title (albeit one borrowed from a much better song – also from the '70s – by Ian Dury) is catchy, but sounds like a mix of punk and glam rock that had little place in the rock scene circa 1990, let alone as something that Kurt Cobain would have modeled his band on.
Johnny is forever lecturing people – and particularly Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies), the young adult daughter he never knew he had until he tries to hit on her at a club – about the good old days of the music business, and all of his references are to Keith Richards and other classic rockers who peaked before Johnny (who is a few years younger than Denis Leary) would have hit puberty. And Gigi's plan to become a rock star by hiring her wastrel father and his ex-bandmate Flash (John Corbett) to write Heathens-style songs for her debut album bears almost no resemblance to what's happening in music today. Gigi wants to be incredibly famous, and she wants to sing music like her old man used to make, and the two seem mutually exclusive now.
There are enough references to modern times – Flash has found some fame playing guitar for Lady Gaga, Gigi explains social media to Johnny – to make it clear that this isn't meant to be a period piece, but it probably should have been. Slide everything back a dozen years or so, and suddenly Johnny's stylistic allegiance to all things '70s makes more sense, Napster and its descendants haven't completely broken the music business model yet, and Gigi's career ambitions would seem slightly more realistic.
How willing is Denis Leary to be the butt of the joke?
This has been the central tension throughout Leary's career in television. He plays one broken, pathetic, reactionary man-child after another (on “The Job,” on “Rescue Me,” and now here), and he's a savvy enough comic writer to understand that these guys should be mocked early and often by the more sensible characters around them. The joke is in watching a Leary character lecture the rest of the world on how things should be, followed by the world pointing out that he's being an imbecile, again.
But Leary also wants to be cool, and always has. It was a core part of his stand-up persona, it's been a part of most of the hired gun acting roles he's taken, and it's absolutely been a part of the roles he's written for himself. Tommy Gavin was a schmuck, but when things got hot, he was ultimately braver, wiser, more attractive to women, and just plain better than every other fireman in that house.
That worked to a degree in a drama/comedy hybrid like “Rescue Me,” but still felt tired long before the end, and it's death on the more straight-up comedy here. For all the jokes here about Johnny being old, annoying, washed-up, and more in need of cholesterol meds than his favorite recreational drugs, there's always a sense lurking underneath each scene that Johnny is smarter, more charismatic, more talented and, as always, more attractive to the ladies, than anyone gives him credit for, and that his friends and family shouldn't be so quick to dismiss all his rants about what rock used to be and can be again if they do it right.
How good is any of the music supposed to be?
And here we come to The “Studio 60” Problem, where fictional artists are unable to live up (or down) to the talent level we keep being told that they have. Again, the title song is fine, if anachronistic, but every other song we hear Leary (who has the attitude of a vintage rocker, but not the pipes), Gillies (who at least has an extensive musical background and the voice that comes with it) or anyone else perform is forgettable at best. And the only way to distinguish the songs that are meant to be good from the ones that are meant to be terrible is by how the other characters react to them.
You can get away with that if the music is just one small element of the characters' lives, but not when it's the whole point of their existence, and the show's.
Does Leary recognize just how creepy the relationship between Johnny and Gigi is?
This, ultimately, is what put me off the show. A little of Leary goes a long way with me these days, but there are enough other elements here (the supporting cast also includes Bobby Kelly, John Ales and Elaine Hendrix as former Heathens reuniting to be part of the Gigi project) to potentially sample.
But the father/daughter stuff is just too much. It's not even that he hits on her before he learns who she is to him, but that their entire relationship is defined by his obsession with, and paranoia about, her sexuality, and the possibility that she might sleep with a guy his age like Flash. Linda Holmes at NPR compared it to the godawful Tony Danza film (released during The Heathens' fictional heyday) “She's Out of Control.” Like “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll,” that movie simultaneously wanted you to be amused by Danza's panic about his suddenly gorgeous daughter, even as it wanted the audience to ogle her, which in turn gave that film – and give this show – a more incestuous vibe than intended. As with the question of Johnny being cool or a fool, the show wants to have Gigi's sexuality both ways – something she feels in complete control of, to the point of enjoying how uncomfortable it makes Johnny, but also something where we're meant to empathize with his newfound paternal instincts – and it collapses in on itself as a result.
The partnership between FX and Leary has been fruitful for both, and I expect “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” to perform better than its lead-out, the second season of “Married,” which is a much more likable (if not wildly funny) comedy, but doesn't have a great hook beyond, “Here's a live-action show that finally figured out how to use Judy Greer to her fullest potential.”
To use a reference that I'm sure Johnny Rock would both understand and appreciate, I know it's only rock & roll, but I don't like it.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org