Critic's Notebook: Who Will Write the First Great Rock 'n' Roll TV Drama?

With 'Vinyl' canceled and 'Roadies' a disappointing mess, why can't television have a great drama based on rock 'n' roll?
Courtesy of HBO
All the potential of 'Vinyl' was wasted.

Denis Leary's FX comedy, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll kicked into its second season on Thursday night, the perfect antidote to a couple of big-swing, big-miss dramas trying to get at the heart of rock 'n' roll. Everybody who was hoping either HBO's Vinyl or Showtime's Roadies would be the rock music drama they'd always wanted (and TV so desperately needs), could certainly use the laughs.

Given his ability to balance drama and comedy (see: Rescue Me), Leary could probably, in retrospect, deliver on the promise that's out there in the endless material. Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll already has dramatic elements, which sprang to life as the first season developed and found itself, becoming in the process a show that sends up aging rock stars and mocks music industry pretensions across musical genres, but one that also has a heart.

But Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll really wasn't built to carry that load. Its main goal is to make you laugh. That the series is helping boost morale in the wake of Vinyl imploding and being canceled (after first being renewed) and the first three episodes of Roadies being disappointingly underwhelming, speaks mostly to the failure of Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger and the endless people who tried to make Vinyl work at HBO, and Cameron Crowe, who hasn't shown any evidence in the first three hours of having come up with a premise that works or characters that are either accurate or worth spending a season with on Roadies.

And honestly, that's kind of depressing.

Why is it that television can't come up with a good rock 'n' roll drama? I'm not talking Empire, which is another thing entirely (from the music to the soapy roots of it).

I would take a good drama about the music industry and its struggles of the streaming age immediately. You know, it's only the one thing that upended everybody's lives and changed the machinery that had been in place since the first record was pressed. No big deal.

To parrot the Hollywood cliché, I love it already. I'd buy that idea in the room.

Same goes for a really intense look at a record label – whether that's in the modern era or, like Vinyl, in 1973. Hell, I'd go for a story about a DJ. I'd watch a coming of age drama about a band of suburban kids who bash it out in their garage one summer and then get a little better by the week, and eventually decide to make a go of it on the road that lays ahead of them.

In short, there are endless music ideas and I'd watch pretty much all of them.

Until I wouldn't.

I mean, I gave up on Empire when it lost its freshness somewhere in all those bubbles. I tried  no really, I did  with Vinyl. I loved it with caveats at the beginning, then cringed when it made all the wrong decisions (mostly, the caveats I warned about), then wrote about how difficult (but perhaps not impossible) it would be for HBO to fix the problems of season one. The renewal gave that hope, but then HBO, under new management and probably wisely, pulled the plug.

There was so much potential lost in Vinyl. It's utterly heartbreaking. Setting the series in 1973 meant it was right at the nexus of endless story possibilities  giants like The Rolling Stones, David Bowie and Led Zeppelin were still at the heights of their creativity and there were the burgeoning disco, punk, glam rock and hip hop movements. If Vinyl did anything right  and 10 episodes proved it didn't do much right  creating a series about a record label and a passionate A&R guy (played by Bobby Cannavale) in that time frame was genius.

And then it blew it. The short version of what Vinyl needed to do was "stick to the music." It didn't. The show was a mess for endless reasons, but loving music was not one of them. I have no idea whose fault Vinyl's failure really is. It had more executive producers and people taking credit for the idea than there are tragic YouTube covers of popular songs. But not sticking to the music, not committing to the passion at the heart of the original idea  Cannavale's character having an epiphany at a New York Dolls concert that he'd strayed from the indescribable pulse-and-fist-pumping energy of rock and roll in favor of merely running a business was the primary culprit in the show's undoing.

Cannavale was excellent in Vinyl, mostly when his character focused on the music, not the cocaine and, oh god help us, the murder in the pilot. He captured what it was like to be a true believer, to have a great ear and a love for all music. Everything else in the show was either stupid, boring, unbelievable, excessive or unnecessary. One man's love of music and resuscitating his record label could have been a really intriguing, passionate series.

But we'll never know.

Coming on the heels of Vinyl's failure might have hurt Roadies, because people who wanted a great rock music drama (me included) thought that Crowe, his legendary career and his best movies about music, would be our savior.

Oy.

Roadies kicked off with a damning Metacritic rating of 47 (compare that to 71 for Vinyl, then weep), as critics (like me) dismissed it as tired, misguided, unrealistic, unfunny and painful to watch. Actual roadies didn't like it. As I said in my review at the time, "if Cameron Crowe can't make a good TV series about rock and roll, can anybody?"

I still think that's a good question, but maybe pinning hopes on Crowe and not someone either less starry-eyed about the mystical power of music or at least more into the actual dramatic machinations at hand, is the bigger issue. Someone needs to step up. In an industry that loves to copy everything, you'd think more (and perhaps better) ideas would already be out there, but apparently not.

But this is fertile ground and I refuse to believe that some talented writer out there won't nail it (hopefully sooner rather than later). I love the backstory to Mad Men and how Matthew Weiner's passion brought to life a very clear, remarkably well-executed story with multiple characters, nuance, a broad understanding of the topic and how it fit in not only with the times but America at large.

That's the kind of focus and interest in minutia and unfailing control over the direction that it will take to make the first great rock 'n' roll drama. But it's not just Weiner. Look at what David Simon did with The Wire and Vince Gilligan did with Breaking Bad. Or what Jenji Kohan is doing with Orange Is the New Black or what Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields are doing with The Americans. I want someone to have that level of passion and focus on this topic and to see their rock and roll storyline really nail it.  

And yes, I know that Crowe did that with Almost Famous but a television series is an entirely different beast. On the plus side, it's a beast that will devour all the stories you can feed it, so if someone has a strong idea and the vision necessary to see the untold amount of directions that story can go in, television will take all you can give it. And critics, clearly this one, will embrace you for the effort.

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