'Sex And Drugs' And Boredom In The Golden Age
The new FX comedy Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll* stars Denis Leary as the decaying former singer of a briefly scorching New York band whose speedy self-immolation was brought about by debauchery and betrayal. The band was called The Heathens, because they were heathens. The singer is named Johnny Rock, apparently because it was a rock band and "John" is a popular name.
As the show opens (I've seen three episodes), Johnny is a broke-down drug addict, but he's television's can't-stay-mad-at-him kind of broke-down drug addict: he's a selfish, narcissistic glory hog, but he's so rock and roll, man. And boy, you should hear him tee off on Radiohead and Kim Kardashian! While he's desperately scrambling to put his band back together, there is a complication: he's just discovered his long-lost daughter Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies) who's a singer herself. And what is Gigi like? She's tough as nails but soft underneath, because she was raised without her dad. She's an amazing performer, which you'll be frankly told if it doesn't come to you naturally. And she smiles warmly in secret with affection for her terrible, long-absent father, even when overhearing a conversation in which he tries to stop his bandmates from coming up with nicknames for her body parts.
Let me confess something that is both personal to me and specific to the world of cable television in which we find ourselves: I'm so bored with this. I'm so, so, so, so bored with this. As a critic, as a viewer, as a writer, I have grown bored out of my skull by all of this, which is not entirely a burden to be fairly borne by this show, but here, in mid-July 2015, is where we are.
Leary, credited with writing all 10 episodes, is good at what he does: he's certainly capable of studding a script with good jokes that poke through this blanket of clichés. Moreover, he is, as always, a tightly wound performer with the capacity to bite off a sentence with rarely matched fury, which is what has made his standup irresistible even to many people who don't care for what he has to say.
But this story is treading again on territory that has been long ago stomped down by every other dark antihero show in cable's years-long parade of damaged men whose self-destructive behavior is revealed in fits and starts to hide a wounded soul. More alarming yet, this one is steeped in the clichés of the dad and surrogate dad sitcoms of the '80s and '90s that relied on the ability of parenthood to transform unlikely men into huggers: your Full Houses and My Two Dadses and Websters and Punky Brewsters. Johnny Rock's seething anger is very Walter White (via Denis Leary, of course), but his emotional pseudo-distance and his paternal instincts yearning to breathe free are Major Dad without the snare drums or a less British Mr. Belvedere.
And, yes, at least in the early going, like far too much of premium television, the show relegates its women to roles of enabler, civilizer, bikini model, and bemused scold. Gigi's flirtation with her father's bandmate Flash (John Corbett) (yup, "Flash") is the occasion for Johnny to engage in the kind of hostile, swaggering panic over ownership of his daughter's sexuality that drove the Tony Danza movie She's Out Of Control in 1989. Like almost every emotionally stunted man in shows and movies of this kind, his love is most keenly felt through jealous efforts to dominate other guys rather than in generosity toward his daughter herself – which isn't an unreasonable idea for a story, but has become a tiresome driver for this many of them.
The only woman in Johnny's life seems to be his former backup singer Ava (Elaine Hendrix), who gets to sit around and occasionally chime in when the guys in the band aren't talking. In the third episode, Gigi is trying to get him to say he loves her and he's stammering about how everyone stops loving him eventually. And by then, it's clear that we are here to watch everybody orbit around this fool while he feels sorry for himself, and that every emotional crescendo will end in a cymbal crash that's all about him.
And I'm bored. Not offended, not wounded, just tired of this dance. I have drunk every drop I will ever get out of this bottomless barrel of performative daring in which the realest imaginable behavior is the worst imaginable behavior and where very little earnest expression of anything is tolerated.
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll isn't badly executed; it is what it is conceived to be. Its limits feel chosen more than encountered. Perhaps it's inevitable that enough success would begin to make cable less daring and would make middle-aged-white-dude antihero shows, whether dramas or comedies, feel more commercial than artful. This is cable television doing what broadcast television did for decades upon decades: make stuff, and if it works, make more stuff that's just like it. There are people who can't get enough romantic comedy, enough period dramas about chilly detectives, or enough crime procedurals, and that's all valid. That's traditional American television-watching, hallelujah. And if FX can build a viewership that feels the same way about the stories of pouty, misanthropic washouts who wearily transform into heroes while making as many purely transactional references to breasts as possible, then more power to 'em.
But this should not be confused, under any circumstances, with rock and roll.
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll premieres on FX on Thursday night.
*The show sometimes seems to style the title as Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll with no spaces, but I decline. To paraphrase a great man of premium cable, a woman must have a code.
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