‘Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll’ Series Premiere Review: Everything From The Title To The Comedy Is Uninspired, Outdated
As soon as Dave Grohl opened his bearded mouth to proclaim that without The Heathens, the fictional rock band fronted by Johnny Rock (Denis Leary) — yep, his last name is Rock — in FX’s atrociously titled Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, there would have been no Nirvana, I wanted to throw up — and not from drinking too much whiskey and doing too much blow like Johnny does, because sex & drugs & rock & roll, maaaaan. This outrageous, practically criminal statement is made following a brief clip of The Heathens playing elevator rock music at the apparent peak of their supposedly formidable creative prowess. If Grohl, in his pathetic cameo in the pilot’s introductory behind-the-scenes rockumentary chronicling the tentative rise and precipitous fall of The Heathens and its frontman, had made this claim about Foo Fighters rather than Nirvana, I would have nodded my head and stroked my chin in thoughtful agreement — a middling, derivative, mediocre rock band cashing in on the brand and stylings of its far superior predecessors inspiring the Foo Fighters? That makes a lot of sense and would have led me to believe that Grohl had been unwittingly ensnared in a satire of crappy rock bands who are operating under the delusion that they are as important and electrifying as the icons of the genre.
But this show has no such self-awareness or awareness of rock or contemporary music at all — The Heathens are supposed to be an early-90’s rock group that inspired the likes of Nirvana, but they sound like generic 70’s rock and Johnny cuts the figure of a hair metal-lite cock rocker, which was exactly the type of music Nirvana upended and discarded to the dustbin of musical history, and exactly the kind of frontman that Kurt Cobain tried so hard not to be. This may sound like the griping of a fanboy, but this is a show that ostensibly has something to say about the state of contemporary music and the longing for a return to some mythical Rock Golden Age. Yet with such fallacious and uninformed attempts to establish The Heathen’s rock bonafides in the opening minutes of the pilot, which Grohl unironically enables, one quickly gets the impression that this show’s version of biting pop-culture criticism and insight is going to be what every stubborn, aging man has said for generations: “Sonny, in my day, music was….” Clearly, the writers are not even close to having an intuitive sense of musical history and trends, which makes this show feel irrelevant before it even begins in earnest. If you actually have an appreciation for rock music and the ebbs and flows of its history throughout the 20th and 21st century, you’re not going to enjoy this show simply for this reason – this is a lot more Rock of Ages than Almost Famous.
A quick summary of the plot and characters: The Heathens, made up of Johnny Rock on lead vocals, Flash (John Corbett) on guitar, Bam Bam (Robert Kelly) on drums and Rehab (John Ales) on bass — do I even need to make fun of these stage names, or do they make fun of themselves enough? — were an up-and-coming early-90’s rock band who broke up on the day their successful debut album was released as a result of Johnny’s outsized ego and his habit of drinking booze like it was water and inhaling cocaine like it was oxygen. In present day, Johnny is a 50-year old washed up alcoholic and chronic drug abuser desperately clinging to whatever relevance and dwindling notoriety he still has. He remains friends with his former bassist and drummer but is estranged from Flash, who is cast as the consummate sellout for assuming a successful studio/touring musician career, playing with the likes of Lady Gaga — who is actually far more influenced by David Bowie, in her chameleon public persona and stage theatrics if not in her sound, than The Heathens are, no matter how much Johnny Rock would vehemently protest. Johnny is married to one of his former backup singers, Eva (Elaine Hendrix), who is as distraught about the elusiveness of lasting fame and fortune as her husband is. One night, at one of Johnny’s dive bar haunts, he attempts to forcibly plant a kiss on a beautiful young woman, Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies), who knees him in the groin and reveals that she is the daughter he never knew he had, having been born of an affair between Johnny and one of his other backup singers. Gigi has musical aspirations and a voice to back them up, and she thinks teaming up with pops and his former bandmates is the key to gaining prominence in the industry. Because nothing screams rock & roll rebellion like trying to ride on the coattails of your father’s aborted career.
This show is supposed to be a comedy, but with the exception of one amusing bit involving a monkey who makes balloon humans being a more sought after entertainer than Johnny and another involving a Jon Bovi cover band called Jon Non Bovi, the jokes either fall flat at best or induce groans at worst. In the former category, any bit that invokes rock cliches of womanizing or substance abuse has such a been there, done that feeling that it’s hard to even crack a smile. In the latter, an extended gag in which Johnny’s bandmates try to figure out what code words they can use to refer to the sexual organs of Johnny’s daughter fails spectacularly at Judd Apatow-esque banter and would be lucky to elicit a few reluctant giggles if it was screened in a room full of seventh-grade boys hopped up on Ritalin. The pilot’s attempt at pop-culture criticism can be boiled down to two arguments, delivered in Leary’s trademark angry rants: it’s really upsetting that Kim Kardashian is famous for a sex tape and Lady Gaga isn’t nearly as cool or exciting or talented as, oh, I don’t know, Mick Jagger. Dear God, this is the best you could do? Material that wasn’t even all that incisive or interesting when it was first introduced and beaten to death before the beginning of this decade?! Leary might need a dramatic comeback of his own to match that of the protagonist of Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll after this show has its run.