'Roadies': TV Review

Rock 'n' roll genocide continues on TV.
6/26/2016

Like 'Vinyl' before it, Cameron Crowe's 'Roadies' is another music series that frustratingly gets most of the notes wrong.

Cameron Crowe has all the bona fides — let's get that out of the way right up front. His backstory as a music journalist is legendary, he has more and better stories about rock 'n' roll than you will ever have and among his many films are two that stand out for music fans as cutting right to the emotional bone of why they even listen in the first place — Singles and Almost Famous.

And, yes, he did Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Say Anything, which also were fueled by music and, well, other fine films as well.

But that doesn't mean he's infallible, as even his most ardent supporters will agree that his film career has some missteps and, more importantly, it doesn't mean he can make a good television show, even if that show is about rock 'n' roll or, in the case of his new Showtime series, Roadies, the people who make it all happen live behind the scenes.

Roadies is a massively disappointing series in large part to the expectations that Crowe brings to it and much of its failings are directly linked to him since he's the creator, writer and director of much of the coming season (of the three episodes reviewed, he directed all of them and wrote the pilot and episode three).

The pilot, which Showtime made available to everyone earlier, is a messy clunker that will test the patience of Crowe's core fans; the second, written by Winnie Holzman, one of the executive producers along with J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk and Len Goldstein, is a more assured and coherent effort that still falls short of digging out of the hole created by the pilot; and the third episode is sadly terrible, the kind of hour filled with bad decisions and triteness that offers little hope for a creative recovery going forward.

The problems start early. Since the show is about roadies — the crew that sets up and takes down the infrastructure for a live tour every night, traveling by buses from city to city — Crowe focuses on them instead of the band that they are so devoted to, the fictional Staton-House Band, which is annoyingly pronounced "stay-ton" and whose presence viewers almost never feel. Crowe told critics that the fictional band is supposed to be about the same level of popularity as the Black Keys, and that its fans are super-devoted, loyal and fanatical about details like song meaning, deviations of the setlist, etc. — all the wonky love-of-music stuff that really exists and which Crowe so identifies with as a music fan.

But it's a structural failure that we don't really get to know the band at all. We get a glimpse of Christopher House (Tanc Sade), but he comes off like a jerk. In the third episode there's a picture of the band and the reaction is, "Oh, those are the guys in it?" and if you can finally figure out who Tom Staton is (remember, "stay-ton" not "stat-in") — played by Catero Colbert — and why he's important at all, you should get a prize or a detective badge.

Yes, the emphasis is on the roadies, but if you can't figure out why in the hell they would live this grueling and mostly unrewarding life in support of a band they idolize, it's hard to get emotionally invested.

All of that might be less of a problem if the actual roadies in question really popped off the screen. Despite a stellar cast that makes you want to like them, their characters are formless and slow to develop. The pilot focuses a lot on Kelly Ann (Imogen Poots who is, early on, the best thing about the show), who works the rigging and feels excluded from the rest of the roadies mainly because they haven't given her a nickname yet (which they should, since Kelly Ann is one of the least memorable character names you'll come across). Anyway, she's going to leave the roadie life — ditch the band and her fellow travelers to go to film school. Crowe's entire mantra about music and the characters he creates is that they burn with a passion for that music, that it means everything to them, that it's personal and transformative and magical. Crowe is a romantic about lots of things but nothing more than music, musicians, songs, bands, lyrics — all the fibers that come out of speakers and into the ears of mostly the "uncool" types in the world, trying to figure out their lives and their direction and how to fit in; the music is what gets them through that journey, binding all parties in the most intense, fervent, all-consuming way.

"I don't hear the music the same way," Kelly Ann says in one of the many soliloquies Roadies goes into. "I don't feel like it's mine anymore. My whole belief thing is just starting to crack."

But she doesn't leave — and not because she gets a nickname. It's because she mentions in one of her soliloquies that the Staton-House Band (gah!) hasn't even changed its setlist from last year's tour. A music fan like Kelly Ann knows that's just mailing it in. But — because Crowe loves those transformative, adrenalized moments — Christopher House heard of her complaint and is going to change the setlist! He's even going to play rare songs! He tells her this as she's walking to her car to leave the band. It is a predictable redemptive moment. What comes next won't be spoiled — but it's one of the most saccharine, manipulative storylines and endings you'll see — almost like a spoof of something else. That closing scene is Crowe's It's A Wonderful Life moment meant to make you feel the power of music and its connectedness.  

Roadies is not really meant to be about Kelly Ann, however. At the center it's that nebulous thing about love of the music and band devotion, but because this is a TV series that needs central characters, it's about Bill (Luke Wilson), the tour manager, and Shelli (Carla Gugino), the production manager, who are still wearily but romantically dedicated to the job, even though Bill might be developing heart problems because the grizzled tour veteran who held all the Staton-House Band (grrrr!) roadie crew together, Phil (Ron White), is abruptly fired and all the pressure is now on him (and Shelli) to make the magic happen every night.

Gugino is underused here, sadly, and while Wilson is likeable he comes off as so tired that quitting the roadie life should be on the table. Worse, Crowe has made Bill out to be an aging lothario bedding lots of twentysomethings on the road, which is both wince-inducing and a cliché that isn't pulled off well at all (particularly in the third episode where there's a Say Anything-type moment only this time — yikes — done with emojis).

There is broad comedy in Roadies, and much of it fails. The introduction of Rafe Spall as British bean-counter Reg Whitehead, meant to tighten up the loose finances on the tour, is largely a broad-sided miss despite Spall's considerable charm and efforts. At some point you might wonder, with Gugino, Wilson, the wonderful Poots and Spall, why Roadies isn't a lot better than it is — and the answer will unfortunately be that the material Crowe is giving them is not very good.

The third episode is the nadir, as it runs out Rainn Wilson as an online music critic so ridiculously over the top and clichéd — he chuckles as he writes mean reviews, is a pompous ass at all times and is in love with his own power but is really just a tiny-dicked tool, of course — that it seems like Crowe wants to cash in old vendettas but is doing it in a way that lacks even an ounce of believability or subtlety.

And that's the pattern, not the exception.

All three episodes of Roadies feel, astonishingly, like they were written by someone who has never been connected to music or real people. No matter how many hip band shirts you toss on these characters or how many references there are to The Replacements or Pearl Jam, it feels inauthentic — like actual roadies would never live this life. "How is this a Cameron Crowe series?" is a question that kept popping up with alarming frequency.

What he gets right is the stuff you'd hope he does — the music is fantastic. The montages, with shots of guitars being strung, amps being put in place, what it feels like to be on a stage, excited crowds, etc., are all pitch perfect. It makes you want there to be more drama and less comedy in the show. It makes you want a real, serious, insider look at rock 'n' roll. When the show is about music — Crowe's conceit is that the opening bands keep falling off the tour, which allows him to highlight The Head and the Heart, Reignwolf and Lindsey Buckingham — as openers, it clicks even though these acts might not be for everyone (which is a risk that music series face). Same when the roadies play a "song of the day" — which runs from Frightened Rabbit to Gary Clark Jr.

But Roadies is about a crew that's family, even though you can't figure their names out for three episodes, even though they all seem a bit too on the nose, created for quirk, asked to be fiery in their devotion to a rock 'n' roll band you never meet and don't really like when you do (with a terrible name you can't pronounce). Movies allow for "a vibe" — which Crowe talks about in Roadies — something you can feel if you can't actually name. In a TV show, you can create a vibe but only after you've created characters people know and want to be around, or a world where a story can exist. In the first three episodes, Roadies feels like a collection of music tropes draped over easily identifiable, clichéd characters, plus two — Bill and Shelli — who remain either underdeveloped or not strong enough to carry the load (which isn't the fault of the actors).

The show could improve, of course — and you have to root for it to do just that. The beauty of television and what partially attracted Crowe to the medium is that creators can tell much longer stories, dive deep with characters and create a world that doesn't end in under two hours like a film. That means Crowe, Holzman and company have seven more tries to fix things.

But the problems in Roadies seem insurmountable because they're baked in, which puts it in the same troubled territory as HBO's Vinyl, another high-profile effort to get at the beating heart of rock 'n' roll. It makes you wonder, if Cameron Crowe can't make a good TV series about rock and roll, can anybody?

 

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