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An interesting thing happened with FX’s Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll last season — it went from funny half-hour comedy that sent-up of aging rockers (and rock ‘n’ roll itself) to something that felt a little deeper, a little more like a family, that began pushing against the constraints of its allotted time as dramatic elements popped up. All the while it also started doing what you hope all new shows do and that’s find itself and flesh out.
Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll wasn’t a ratings powerhouse but it did well enough to be renewed, partly because FX clearly realized there was a lot of chemistry with the cast and that series creator and star Denis Leary had a lot more storylines to develop (along with the arduous and impressive task of writing all the songs). The network also probably realized that some of the polarizing initial reaction had more to do with people thinking Leary wanted to play rock star (rather than what he’s clearly doing, which is mocking himself/his character and the ever-expanding list of aging rockers out there), and that audiences would eventually realize the series wasn’t a one-note deal.
AIR DATE Jun 30, 2016
That faith from FX was rewarded as the show blossomed in season one. Elizabeth Gillies, who plays Gigi, the daughter Leary’s Johnny Rock character didn’t know he had, became a breakout star who’s not only a great singer but an actress that nailed her comic timing and proved adept in many ways at being the nuanced center of the series.
While the connection between Leary and John Corbett (who plays Flash, the guitar player who was poised for stardom along with Johnny Rock back in the day until their band, The Heathens, imploded on the day their album was released) was always there and Leary tapped into the dynamic regularly, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll truly took off when it realized how the ensemble fit together.
Elaine Hendrix as Ava really shined in the moments Leary and Corbett weren’t dominating with their snarky riffing, and she really steps forward in season two. Almost like its own rock ‘n’ roll cliché, the show’s early episodes didn’t quite know what to do with Robert Kelly as drummer Bam Bam and John Ales as bassist Rehab, but by midseason had figured out that, like a good rhythm section, Kelly and Ales worked great together. It all came together when the two characters, feeling left out, form a “beastcore” band called Three Dolphin Clicking Sounds and are known as DJ Whale Earnhardt Jr. and DJ Mac ‘N Cheese — a brilliant development that ends up spoofing all kinds of “cores” plus Daft Punk (Rehab and Bam Bam wear motorcycle outfits and helmets).
Not only did this idea hit on what Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll had been going for from the start — jokes at the expense of all kinds of acts in the music industry — but fleshed out two characters who hadn’t been painted in full, touching on their hurt feelings as Gigi, Johnny and Flash were selling out for success, thus creating an underdog duo that the audience could always root for (even if both Leary and Corbett often mock their own characters as egotistical, vain and in constant fear of aging, they are still essentially the most known in the band, as lead singers and lead guitarists always are). Instead of being bit players, Ales and Kelly got to be integral parts of the series and that growth continues in season two.
Gillies was always the glue to the show because she could actually sing — but she was a wild card as well, since it was a mystery at the start of season one whether she could pull off what Leary was asking of her (to fearlessly riff with him, convincingly pull off the huge age-gap romance storyline with Flash/Corbett and simultaneously play this talented, idealistic woman whose overriding desire is to be famous, which is why she arrived on the scene to reunite her dad’s old band). It was a huge ask, and Gillies pulled it off at every turn.
All of that cumulatively led to Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll finding itself as the first season went along. Since then, television has seen the arrival of HBO’s Vinyl, the Martin Scorsese/Mick Jagger behemoth, and Showtime’s Roadies from Cameron Crowe — two premium cable offerings with impressive pedigrees that, well, both ended up being really bad (Vinyl has been canceled and the first three episodes of Roadies were extremely disappointing). If you had Leary’s sarcastic comedy standing, at the end of this all, as the best show on television about rock ‘n’ roll, raise your hand.
The disappointment of those other two dramas almost makes you want Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll to expand the dramatic elements it was so clearly tapping into by the end of the first season (and in some ways, it could easily be an hour-length show), but it’s also very clear that the show is mostly into being funny, with the emotional moments coming second.
That’s not to say the notion of seriousness is missing — the series works best when it makes Johnny Rock even less secure than he already feels about everything; the romance between Flash and Gigi can survive as long as Flash plays it sweet and less rock star; Johnny and Ava’s relationship is interesting because of their storied pasts together clashing with their worries about the future, etc. Season two feels more introspective because it starts with the death of a former band member and everyone still bummed out about David Bowie dying — so five aging almost-weres are left to ponder their mortality while one young wannabe star feels like maybe she hasn’t really lived the lifestyle yet (and wouldn’t have any stories once she did become famous).
It sets a tone of both seriousness and ridiculousness, as expected.
Season two quickly confirms, in the first four episodes, that Leary has found out what everyone does best from the growth seen last season. Hendrix gets a major storyline that continues her character’s evolution. There’s a tremendously spot-on, emerging arc where Rehab’s beloved song cycle (29 songs!) about the Irish Potato Famine gains interest because Campbell Scott wants to turn it into the Off-Broadway version of Hamilton (it’s called Feast against Rehab’s wishes, given the whole hunger aspect, and is soon being referred to as “Familton“).
Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll has always been heavy on jokes, usually launched by Leary, and there’s obviously more of that (but keep an ear out for Gillies hilarious song riff that mashes up Stevie Nicks and Adele). This year it has actually dialed back the kind of rapid-fire jokes about musical acts so prominent in the early parts of season one and is rightly focusing on characters, letting the comedy emerge from each of their stories.
It’s a nice, continuing development for a series that could be the last rock ‘n’ roll show standing.
Airs: Thursdays, 10 p.m. ET/PT (FX)
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