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NBC’s Young Rock is a new comedy caught between The Rock and a good show.
To be clear, as with all things related to the Jumanji star and wrestling legend, The Rock is not a monolith.
There’s Dwayne Johnson, who collaborated with Nahnatchka Khan and Jeff Chiang to develop what is often a rather lovely tribute to Johnson’s hard-working parents and the values they instilled in him during his migratory, economically precarious childhood.
Then there’s The Rock, beloved movie star and social media presence of such high wattage and near-universal likability that you can understand why all and sundry would be desperate to have him on camera as much as possible in Young Rock — despite the fact that what might be best for the show’s visibility turns out not, in any way, to be best for the show artistically. Nobody would say that The Rock is giving a bad performance as The Rock in Young Rock, but he’s a distraction and a dilution in a show that deserved to have the chance to stand on its own merits.
Actually, that’s only the tip of the iceberg — icebergs, which are, I guess, ice and not rocks — when it comes to how many versions of The Rock are featured in this peculiarly structured comedy.
Framing the story is a device that puts us in 2032. The Rock is running for president on a platform of what appears to be inspiring platitudes and not ideology. Two of the three episodes sent to critics involve The Rock conducting interviews with Randall Park, who appears to have transitioned from actor to talk show host/journalist. It’s a reflection of our fragmented media landscape that nobody here noticed they were stealing this framing device from Disney+’s Diary of a Future President (and a reflection of how instantly CBS canceled the 2017 sitcom Me, Myself & I that nobody made that comparison either).
The story then exists in three different timeframes. In 1982, 10-year-old Dwayne (Adrian Groulx) is living in Hawaii with his dad (Joseph Lee Anderson) — who’s wrestling in Dwayne’s grandmother’s (Ana Tuisila) popular local circuit with a bevy of future superstars — and his mother (Stacey Leilua). In 1987, Dwayne (Bradley Constant) has moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and his parents have fallen on harder times, forcing him to resort to both shoplifting and minimum-wage work to make those around him think he’s successful. Finally, in 1990, Dwayne (Uli Latukefu) is a newly arrived freshman at the University of Miami, trying to carve out a place on a powerhouse football team surrounded by future NFL stars.
It’s a lot. Too much.
The pilot, which Khan wrote and directed, is the only episode to feature the bookends plus all three storylines, and it simply doesn’t work. It’s too hard to establish the stakes and situations in each period, and to justify the wrestling credo “working the gimmick,” for anything to be even slightly funny.
It’s a proof-of-concept pilot for what turns out not even to be the concept, since the other two episodes sent to critics eschewed the need to include all of the timelines at once. Other than the framing device, the second episode was completely the 1987 version of Dwayne and while the “Dwayne is embarrassed about his family’s economic status and has to lie about it” plotline was completely duplicative of the pilot, both in-episode parental storylines — Dad’s ego is hurt by wrestling at a low-rent flea market and Mom learns lessons cleaning the house of a lonely, rich housewife — landed for me.
The third episode (airing sixth) was even better and, frankly, is what the show should have probably been. It’s the 10-year-old Rock surrounded by people playing these recognizable wrestling icons in very appealing ways, especially Matthew Willig’s very sweet take on Andre the Giant, which leads to the boy and the giant man-child bonding over the movie ET. The episode builds to a conclusion that’s amazingly bittersweet … and then steps all over that by going to a 2032 press conference involving The Rock and a pointless big-name guest star that blunts everything that was emotionally rich and conflicted about the 1982 story.
Nothing, incidentally, was lost in critics not being sent another episode in the 1990 timeline, though I really liked Emmett Skilton’s impression of Ed Orgeron, gravel-voiced coach at LSU currently and The Rock’s position coach at Miami. Maybe we needed three entirely separate shows: Young Rock, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and Rock: The College Years. Throw in The Rock: The Framing Device and NBC could have had a full Rockoverse.
And why was the framing device necessary at all, other than in giving NBC footage featuring The Rock to promote? Little known fact: You don’t need to fabricate a 2032 presidential campaign for audiences to know that no matter what adversity The Rock goes through in his juvenile days, he’s going to eventually become rich, successful and beloved by Elizabeth Warren. Nobody’s going to call Young Sheldon the best show in the world, but it’s a good show and a completely workable template for what Young Rock should have done: let the real Dwayne Johnson do a couple lines of voiceover per episode.
All this means is that I’m stuck complaining about structure flaws and a surplus of The Rock, when a correctly focused show would led to a correctly focused review emphasizing how truly wonderful Anderson and Leilua are; they convey all of the flawed warmth one could ever want in a pair of sitcom parents. I should be celebrating how appealing Willig and all of the wrestling impersonators are and how much I enjoyed the managed chaos of the wacky ’80s wrestling scene. They aren’t quite methadone for those missing Netflix’s abruptly canceled GLOW, but they occasionally tap into a similarly thoughtful vein, setting up a parallel between the construction of wrestling personae and the ways outsiders often have to adjust their images to fit into everyday life.
So I suspect there may be a good show in NBC’s Young Rock. It just isn’t the pilot, and subsequent episodes make a mess of it. So is it truly there at all?
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Joseph Lee Anderson, Stacey Leilua, Adrian Groulx, Bradley Constant, Uli Latukefu, Ana Tuisila, Fasitua Amosa and John Tui
Creators: Nahnatchka Khan and Jeff Chiang, inspired by Dwayne Johnson’s life
Airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NBC starting Feb. 16.
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