“Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” may be brand new, but it shows its age from the outset. In the series premiere of FX’s single-camera comedy, washed-up musician Johnny Rock (writer/creator Denis Leary), dissolute frontman of the fictional ’90s supernova The Heathens, rages against creatively bankrupt tribute bands and reality TV stars with a curmudgeon’s confidence. “I’ll suck Bruce Jenner’s cock right here,” he pledges in one ill-timed scene, desperate for the paparazzi’s attention. “That’s if he still has one.”
Though surely written before Caitlyn Jenner’s Internet-breaking Vanity Fair cover, the line is of a piece with the series’ uncomfortable relationship to our pop cultural moment, portraying Johnny as both miser and sage. He may be right, when he bumps into his estranged daughter, Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies), on a New York sidewalk, to see something distinctive in the stars of the past, but “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” stacks the deck against “Millennials” by focusing its comic energies on easy targets.
Whereas Johnny name-drops The Beatles, Sinatra, and Paul Newman, for instance, the analogous reference points for one of Gigi’s ditzy pals are Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus’ half-sister, and Lindsay Lohan’s mom, as if Leary simply plugged “the Youths” into Google. Along with the network’s bland sophomore series, “Married,” “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” takes a stab at the humor of aging and ends up running headlong into the generation gap. It’s as creaky as an arthritic elbow.
With rare exceptions, including Johnny’s note-perfect musical parody of the mope-rock excesses of Morrissey, Coldplay, and Radiohead, the broad nostalgia of the title leaves “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” struggling to stake out new terrain for a host of familiar ideas. When Gigi, transplanted to New York with dreams of stardom and a helpful gift of $200,000 from her mother, hires Johnny to write her first batch of songs, he wrongly assumes she wants “auto-tuned, pop-schlocky Katy Perry bullshit,” and the majority of the series’ allusions to the present day are similarly imprecise. Leary’s writing aches to land zingers at the zeitgeist’s expense, but the particulars (“Wedding Crashers” and online tabloids, for example) suggest that he’s not quite in on the joke.
There’s comic hay to be made, of course, from Johnny’s cultural tone-deafness. As George Clooney once said, with regard to Marion Cotillard’s performance in “La Vie en Rose,” playing old requires understanding that the old are always playing young. Yet the series’ reliance on received wisdom whittles the entire exercise down to a collection of lifeless conceits—from the artistic benefits of substance abuse to performers’ “symphony of narcissism,” the sole thrust of the horrific “Doctor Doctor,” a half-hour of screeching recriminations that left me with a case of lockjaw. The band’s bickering over solos and the ludicrous riders attached to the contract for a reunion concert in Belgium both come in for similarly interminable treatment, which “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” waves off with a halfhearted attempt at self-awareness. “What is this?” Gigi ventures. “1974?”
Though the series tries to skewer fame’s outsized place in our society, the indiscriminate sniping is bound to cause collateral damage, in this case Leary’s apparent affection for rock ‘n’ roll itself. Not unlike the characters it ostensibly lampoons, “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” focuses on the badass accoutrements of the genre rather than the music, and undermines its one successful strategy in the process. As played by Gillies, Gigi is brashly, unapologetically talented, and the finest scene in the first five episodes comes at the end of the pilot, constructing a raw, electric musical number from a handful of long takes. Sandwiched between a flaccid gag involving the band members’ code-names for her vagina and the closing credits, the moment seems like a dispatch from a more accomplished piece of work. It turns out it helps to have an adult in the room, even if she’s only 25.
“Married,” created by Andrew Gurland and starring Nat Faxon and the perpetually underutilized Judy Greer, is the more valiant of FX’s doubleheader, and I’ve wanted to like it, rather desperately, since the series premiered last summer. A rangy, realistically oddball portrait of passing 40 with two-and-a-half kids and a dog, it’d be the perfect antidote to the cutesy, argumentative couples of “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Mike & Molly”—except that it’s unfunny as fuck.
“Married” returns with much the same tediously obsessive attention to sex, or lack thereof, that marked its freshman run, the writing still resistant to both the percussive laugh lines of “You’re the Worst” (FXX) and the darker comic insights of “Louie.” Where the latter might find provocative humor or even pathos in the tale of an aging parent’s dementia, “Married” sees Russ (Faxon) and Lina (Greer), during a trip to visit Lina’s mother (guest star Frances Conroy), suddenly fixated on the lubricant in a bathroom drawer; where the former, with an assist from the tremendous Kether Donohue, manages to make one character’s vacant, up-speaking “cockaholism” weirdly endearing, “Married” prefers the embittered “I’m as dry as you make me” of Lina’s newly separated friend, Stacey (Michaela Watkins).
Limiting their notions of what might be funny about turning 40 or 50 to a series of flailing attempts to recapture lost youth—without expending the effort to paint this idealized past with anything but the broadest possible brush—”Married” and “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” neglect the very thing that might distinguish them from other half-hour comedies, which is the wisdom of lived experience. There are plenty of series that depict unmarried urbanites shambling into their 30s, the sneering, crass, surprisingly sweet “You’re the Worst” perhaps the best among them. There are all too few, on the other hand, that treat the terrors of adulthood without recourse to bickering over menopause and wayward man-children.
“I like to keep the bar low,” Russ tells Lina after her disastrous 40th birthday party, as if to describe the state of the mid-life sitcom, but by striking only the most commonplace notes, “Married” and “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” fail to clear it nonetheless. Though I’m too young and too single to know for sure if either series could be described as “accurate,” I do know what my parents always told me, and it’s a strategy FX’s summer comedies might consider pursuing: Act your age.
“Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” (10pm) and “Married” (10:30pm) premiere Thursday, July 16 on FX.