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Sometimes a TV series comes along with a premise that seems perfect for the times.
FX’s superb, funny and wonderfully spot-on Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, created by and starring Denis Leary, is that kind of series: a show that channels Leary’s searing sense of humor and cultural awareness into a package that’s more entertaining and less of a heavy lift than FX’s excellent but challenging Rescue Me.
Maybe it’s thanks to Leary’s clear lifelong love of rock (he writes all the music here) or that, turning 58 in August, he has cast himself perfectly as the aging rock-star-who-wasn’t-quite-a-star Johnny Rock.
Whatever the cause, there’s gold in Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll— at least in all five episodes that FX sent along. At face value, the show’s a weather-beaten valentine to rock ‘n’ roll, to the love of music that makes everybody want to be a star up onstage and an examination of how success is so fleeting and prone to being sabotaged by ego and excess. But deeper down, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll is also about friendship, love and even parenting. And at its best, the show is a rare and vibrantly realistic look at aging and questions of whether you lived the life you meant, whether you found happiness or not, how you deal with the indignities of a youth-obsessed culture and your own frustrations with (or acceptance of) the ravages of fading beauty, health and relevance.
Of course, it’s also a comedy — and Leary has all kinds of targets to rip through in Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll. His Johnny Rock was the lead singer and songwriter for the “legendary” (and almost famous) early ‘90s New York rock band The Heathens, who broke up on the day their album came out (reviews of the leaked album were great) because of band infighting. Johnny was the cause (the show hilariously but briefly details how each successive band he started imploded): He slept with the wife of Flash (John Corbett), the band’s lead guitarist (Johnny also slept with everybody else’s significant other). Flash has resurrected his career by becoming Lady Gaga‘s guitarist — a job that Johnny mocks. The rest of the band, including backup singer and Johnny’s longtime (if not always loyal) lover, Ava (Elaine Hendrix), and drummer Bam Bam (Robert Kelly), still hang out together. In a bar one night, Johnny thinks a hot, younger woman is coming on to him — only to find out with a knee to the nethers that she’s the daughter he never knew he had.
Bent on being famous, Gigi (the lovely and talented Elizabeth Gillies) has money that the band desperately needs and a master plan: that the band get together, with her as the lead singer and Johnny and Flash writing new songs for her. Johnny, of course, thinks that, at worst, they’ll get some easy money until it runs out, but he has to recruit Flash and bassist Rehab (John Ales), who also hates Johnny, to return.
It’s probably not much of a surprise to learn that Gigi really can sing (and Gillies really can) and that some magic might be bubbling up in the unexpected reunion/collaboration — but not without lots and lots of hurdles that Leary both understands perfectly and can rip through hilariously with his writing.
In typical Leary fashion, no one is safe, including John Lennon, who Johnny notes was writing songs about baking bread when he was sober (Johnny refuses to become like this): “He’d gotten so boring that if Mark David Chapman hadn’t shot him, Yoko probably would have.”
As Johnny still lives the rock ‘n’ roll dream — drugs, drinking, ego — he refuses to get help. “Name one great band or rock star that doesn’t get high,” he asks the band in a mini-intervention. They respond: “Coldplay, Morrissey, Radiohead …” Johnny: “I rest my case.”
The half-hour episodes fly by as Leary and the cast dive into and reimagine all kinds of rock ‘n’ roll cliches, giving the show ample fodder to name-check and either mock or celebrate both older bands or artists and current ones. The pop culture element is just one of the mother lodes in Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll.
Bam Bam, who has dropped the reckless lifestyle, tries to convert Johnny. “Have you heard of the Art of Now?” he asks. “Is that an Art Tatum record?” replies Johnny. “No, it’s a life movement,” says Bam Bam, “Breathe. Flow. Engage.”
Johnny: “So, it’s a Sting record.”
For every music-industry mention — “Suck on that, Oasis” — there’s a deeper story that Leary and cast wonderfully mine. Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll is also an ongoing narrative, so we see the evolution of Gigi, with Johnny having to take a backseat, and how the new band’s new fame is changing them all over again.
A mixture of comedy and savvy understanding of the music — and people — gives Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll numerous storytelling avenues. In the first five episodes, the series races down those streets with aplomb, garnering laughs, developing characters and even coming up with some dramatic insights in the process. It’s a wonder a show like this hasn’t come along before.
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