The hedonistic comedy “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll,” created by Denis Leary, features Leary at his most Leary-ish; a leather pants-wearing ego monster coasting on the vague idea of what a “rock star” is. Johnny Rock’s been living something approximating the dream for over 20 years, and it’s gotten him nowhere. But his heretofore-unknown daughter Gigi (Elizabeth Gilles) might be the one to change that for him.
Their partnership, which also brings back together Johnny’s original band is the driving thrust of the series, an easy selling point that keeps the show focused on its core principles: all the things mentioned in the title, with maybe an emphasis on the drugs, but definitely plenty of rock and roll.
For those who appreciate a good joke about Bon Jovi’s guitarist, or other arcane music trivia, “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” delivers. Those who enjoy Leary’s particular talent for spitting out great dialogue like it tastes bad will also find this one easy to watch. There are no real boundaries being pushed, which is a shame to admit about a show which could use just the slightest bit more edge.
The material that’s not really working yet is Johnny Rock’s newfound collaboration with Gigi, which has a certain poetry to it on paper. If he can’t become a super-star, he can at least help make his daughter’s dream come true. But the rules of their relationship keep changing, especially as Gigi gets closer to Flash (John Corbett), Johnny’s estranged bandmate and potential… love interest for Gigi? It’s not necessarily a romantic pairing I buy into, especially because it comes with Johnny finding the concept of a fellow bandmate sleeping with his adult daughter deeply offensive. As at least one critic has pointed out ably, Johnny’s obsession with policing Gigi’s sex life indicates “hostile, swaggering panic over ownership of his daughter’s sexuality,” which is a more than fair complaint.
At least I like both of the show’s female leads. Gilles’s tough energy makes the idea of her being Johnny’s biological daughter completely believable, and she is an incredible stage performer as well (an essential ingredient in making this show at all believable). And Elaine Hendrix is an actor I’ve enjoyed for years (she was the blonde girl from “Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion” who liked Romy and Michelle’s fashion designs!) and plays an interesting lynchpin in Johnny’s life: the one lady who never left.
So. It’s watchable, and the music is actually pretty solid. Since it was written by Leary, it’s easy to imagine it being a bit self-indulgent, but the aim is for guitar-driven rock of yesteryear, and it turns out Leary has a good ear for it. But the thing about sex, and drugs, and good ol’ rock and roll is that under the right circumstances, they can genuinely change your life. but they can also be numbing.
I suppose what ends up playing as charming in “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” that something like “Entourage” makes feel intolerable is the fact it’s hedonism with some minor level of consequences. It’s pretty clear that if Johnny Rock weren’t so fully committed to the lifestyle over the music, his career and his health would be much improved.
Because what works so well is that the show is interested in a question that does go under-explored in narratives about aspiring talent: What happens when every fiber of your being tells you that you should be a raging success, and yet, you’re middle-aged and that success is nowhere to be found?
If the end of the season finds Johnny Rock finally scrambling to the top of the mountain that’s eluded him for decades, it’ll be a disappointment of a series. After all, we’ve seen that story before a hundred times over. But there’s a real opportunity here to witness an artist grapple with the very real truth so many in life face: Sometimes, success doesn’t happen. Sometimes, people have to settle for mediocrity.
And it’ll be interesting to see how Leary deals with that question. He’s created several television shows, been recognized for years for his talents, but we don’t list “Rescue Me” among the great series of the last two decades all that often. He’s been working hard for years, but while he’s well-known enough to get our attention, we might not recognize him on sight.
And he’s conscious of this (there’s even a bit, in one episode, that’s drawn from his real-life experience of being constantly recognized as other celebrities). So Leary’s take on this question could be a very interesting one, but only if he really lets it develop and avoids slipping into the real potential for self-indulgence that this show offers. After all, it’s about rock stars having fun and getting loaded and making music, and that can be awfully watchable. But there’s potential for Leary to push beyond that, if he wants it.
“Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” premieres tonight on FX.