In 2007, after returning to the music scene with the full E Street Band, Bruce Springsteen released the critically- and commercially-adored album, “Magic.” A fierce and cutting portrait of American disillusionment from track to track, the music marked a high point for the legendary rocker’s resurgent post-9/11 work, but it also signified the politically-progressive singer’s most pessimistic take on a society he’s been writing about — and representing — since the late ’60s.
Then, just two years later, the insightful artist released an album that could very well be his most hopeful ever, certainly since his return to prominence. While infectiously enthusiastic and admirably experimental, “Working on a Dream” was a significant step down in caliber compared to “Magic.” But it was what reflected our mass perspective in 2009, and more than that, it was what we needed to hear.
Assuming we survive the upcoming election unscathed, we’ll remain in this latter space for the foreseeable future. (Springsteen’s latest was titled “High Hopes.”) Yet, when it comes to television, it often still feels like we’re looking through “Magic’s” lens. There’s plenty of truly great TV, but black clouds hang over the best the medium has to offer.
In other words, where, oh, where has the sincerity gone?
If you were to look at a consensus list citing the “best” of TV, the select offerings are all pretty dark — even the comedies. Season after season of FX’s brilliant “The Americans,” the vice on our hearts only tightens. “The Leftovers” has actually offered up two “happy” endings in two seasons, but still is seen as one of television’s bleakest stories. Even “You’re the Worst” doesn’t take the expressway to euphoria, making pitstops for some seriously intimidating conversations.
Do we want these shows to change? Hell no. They’re perfect — literally, perfect — programs, and reality is an essential element to each show’s construction, as well as a valued facet for modern TV enthusiasts. But as other series of varied (yet comparable) verisimilitude are also dominating the television landscape so thoroughly, it’s starting to feel like there’s no room for alternative perspectives to peak through: the fantasies; the dreamers; the romantics. One could describe each of the above shows in these same terms (respectively), but only after subtracting the saccharine connotations found at the end of their interpretive spectrum.
Cameron Crowe’s “Roadies,” throughout its wildly uneven first season, lived firmly in the unwelcome end of said spectrum. Embodying its creators’ consistent theme of sentimental dreamers, the Staton House Band’s crew worked through emotional and professional challenges simultaneously in Season 1, often equating the two typically distinct life subsets because their jobs aren’t jobs — they’re callings.
At times, this kind of talk is as laughable as the cynics out there argue “Roadies” is in general. And one can feel Crowe (and co-writer/EP Winnie Holzman) guarding his baby from the skeptics’ attacks in the season finale, as the first 40 minutes of a 65-minute episode are dominated by music; by lyrics; by words not written for “Roadies” but pulled from respectable wordsmiths and incorporated into the story to serve as the series’ voice. And with this lineup of legends, why not?
- Eddie Vedder, “Man of the Hour”
- Robyn Hitchcock, “Judge”
- Jim James, “He Was a Friend of Mine”
- Jackson Browne with Greg Leisz, “Mohammed’s Radio”
- Gary Clark Jr., “Church”
- Nicole Atkins, “A Little Crazy”
- Lucius with Jackson Brown and Greg Leisz, “Willin'”
- Jackson Brown, “The Load-Out”
These songs (of varying lengths) serve the story well, and showcase an essential A-side of “Roadies” — capturing the roadies’ genuine affection and connection with music. But peppered in between performances is the first appearance of Sean (Matt Passmore), Shelli’s (Carla Gugino) off-screen husband for Episodes 1-9, who shows up to surprise his wife with a recommitment of sorts. He’s got a stable financial foundation for the first time, and he’s ready to start a family with the constantly-touring production manager. She, however, has been in a will-they-or-won’t-they discussion with Bill (Luke Wilson), a longtime friend who’s been surprisingly reasonable and respectful with his intentions toward Shelli.
Up until the music stops (briefly), this awkward tricycle is handled gracefully, but, well, you know a man whose first words are, “Hello, lover” — to his wife — wasn’t going to stick around long. (Worse yet, he doubles down on the douche vibe with the pre-titles line, “I’m going to boink her,” which is even more appalling since he was talking about trying to have a baby.) And the transition from unhappily married to happily in love hits all the speed bumps “Roadies” kept finding throughout Season 1.
Bill’s motivating, though entirely self-sacrificing, speech is played to perfection by Wilson. Crowe has always known how to craft a big speech, and it takes a certain commitment, understanding and cadence to pull off the sincerity of the moment. Wilson does, but even though his lengthy eulogy could have benefitted from a little back-and-forth to break it up, the following dialogue scene is as clunky as can be. Nor does it make a whole lot of sense, as Shelli goes from making out with her husband to asking for a divorce. It’s been a long time coming, but background isn’t enough to justify a sloppy break-up.
But it had to be done. Bill and Shelli were meant to be, and the audience has known it since the premiere episode. Stringing it out any longer would have been exhausting, and Crowe writes a union sweet, honest and romantic. Is it a “Jerry Maguire” landmark moment? No, but it’s good enough — and, more importantly, it’s what we wanted.
And here’s where I’m going to lose a lot of you, if I haven’t already. The finale of “Roadies” (which could be the series finale, as Showtime has yet to commit to a second season) needed not only to end this way, but to fail spectacularly all season. Anyone waiting for a last second shock — one not telegraphed by weeks of build-up — doesn’t understand the greater purpose of a show like “Roadies.” While it may be shaky from scene to scene, episode to episode, season to season (again, if we’re lucky), the hope exuding from every two-dimensional character, every cheesy moment, every saccharine story arc is what makes the Showtime show important, today, in the TV realm.
It’s not an easy torch to bear. “The Newsroom” was scalded over the course of three seasons for a similar sincerity. Series with higher overall quality like “Friday Night Lights” and “Parks and Recreation” went long overlooked in the ratings and/or awards shows. And while “Roadies” pales in comparison to all three of these top tier TV series, there’s a reason the above examples consist exclusively of retired programs. Unless you’re willing to sit through the ambition-less dreck of CBS sitcoms, “Roadies” is the only show left of its kind.
Now, to say “Roadies” is the “We Shall Overcome” of TV is a bit of a stretch, but applying such a parallel may be the only way to unite Crowe’s haters and fans. We all need magic and hope in our lives, and as TV becomes an ever more influential presence, we’ll need more shows like “Roadies” to balance the darkness and the light; to aim high, over and over, even if it falls flat more than it flies. For if we’re too afraid of dreaming for fear of being laughed at — for fear of being pushed aside for the more significant reality in front of us — we may stop believing in magic altogether.