The first thing onscreen is a printed quote from Tom Petty. The first voice you hear is a young lady making sex noises. The first lady you see is that young lady, topless. The first dude you see is Luke Wilson. Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” is on deck. And with that, Cameron Crowe’s new Showtime series Roadies is off and stumbling. There’s nothing quite so uncomfortable as watching someone be this uncomfortable in his comfort zone.
Crowe has struggled in the 2010s thus far, as have we all. Critics were mostly confounded by 2011’s sappy We Bought a Zoo, though it sold just enough tickets to skate by; last year’s Aloha was a disaster on multiple fronts. Roadies, his first dalliance with TV, is a retreat, or at least a tactical return to his hallowed rock ’n’ roll roots, tracking the whimsical foibles of the tour crew for a fictional jam-folk superstar outfit called the Staton-House Band. Exactly one person onscreen looks like an actual roadie — that’d be Blue Collar Comedy Tour vet Ron White, who plays Phil, a surly-sweet Skynyrd fanatic with his name printed on his hat — but he fires a gun in the pilot and gets canned, resurfacing onscreen thus far only via FaceTime. You’ll miss him. You’ll miss a lot of things.
The hour-long comedy premieres Sunday; the pilot, written and directed by Crowe, is available online for free right now, albeit with just a few disadvantages.
Another disadvantage: The free preview bleeps out a goodly amount of Carla Gugino’s dialogue, in that a goodly amount of Carla Gugino’s dialogue consists of 12-pound swears. Goodness. She plays Shelli, the tour production manager; Wilson stars opposite as Bill, the tour manager. The distinction between their jobs is never explained. No time, you see, as we must immediately establish that they’re the requisite Will They/Won’t They couple. She’s married, and he’s super-mopey, you see. But anyone who interacts with them immediately asks, “Are you guys married?” or says, “You guys are in denial about a lot of things,” or both. They almost hold hands at one point. This is not a show vs. tell thing — the show is literally shouting, “I’M TELLING YOU,” while showing you.
Anyway, Shelli cusses up a storm. Gugino has survived worse comedically, but she’s never had to deliver lines like, “Well, don’t blow your two-year sobriety on this fuckwad doucheboy.” Or, “I thought you looked like a fuckin’ punk-ass child molester, but you turned out to be a STAR.” Or, “Where in the holy hell were you, fuckface asshole?” The supercut will be epic, and so NSFW it’ll come around to being SFW again.
Crowe is no stranger to profanity or nudity, of course. But Roadies is specifically engineered to remind you of his relatively chaste 2000 masterwork, Almost Famous, a bittersweet backstage look at ’70s rock stardom replete with an infectious optimism and cheeriness and bizarre wholesomeness that does not translate here without the period-piece sheen that tends to make such naïveté charming, if not entirely plausible. That movie succeeded in convincing you that music just meant more back then; this show struggles to convince you that today’s music means more than you think, and pours on au courant references that can’t help but already sound dated, with lotsa jokes about hipsters and iPhones and Taylor Swift and Facebook and worthless music bloggers. (Rainn Wilson has a brutal, endless turn as a Bob Lefsetz type in the third episode, mostly clad in only a bathrobe, worn backward.) Later, Luke is required to emote tragi-romantically amid onscreen emoji. He does his best, as do we all. These are not Photoshopped:
Imogen Poots plays Kelly Ann, the young, idealistic, adorably awkward electrician who skateboards everywhere (cue the Ramones) and holds this whole wacky crew together: her espresso-slinging twin brother (played by Machine Gun Kelly!), who just got bounced off the Pearl Jam tour; the lesbian soundwoman; the mystic security guard who wandered over from an Adam Sandler movie; the New Jerseyan bass tech with the fake English accent, etc. Crowe has a disconcerting habit of bending splendid young actresses Manic-Pixieward (see Elizabethtown or Aloha), and Poots is indeed required to smile knowingly to herself quite a bit, but she does her best, too. She’s got a Will They/Won’t They foil as well, in the person of Rafe Spall as Reg Whitehead, the actually English number cruncher who joins the tour to cut costs and fire people and act all snooty. Reg is immediately saddled with an I Am Super-Evil (But Not For Long) speech in which he yells shit like, “I’M HERE TO PROTECT THE BRAND!” He is not trying as hard, but who can blame him. Imogen will drag him toward the light, and possibly drag you, too.
Listen, this is all winsome in a warm, familiar, not unpleasant way — it’s eons less pretentious and grim than HBO’s 2016 rookie Vinyl, which got canceled just yesterday. You know how Crowe operates by now, so you’ll likely welcome the flashy, pushy soundtrack — the Replacements, Pearl Jam, “Son of a Preacher Man,” modern sops like Echosmith’s “Cool Kids,” etc. — and the scenes where all the characters gather round to beam beatifically at the tour’s various opening acts, who play themselves, and also, y’know, play themselves. (Seattle folkies the Head and the Heart eye-roll through the pilot; Lindsey Buckingham gets more dialogue than most of the principals when he drops by.) Midway through each episode, you’re even treated to the SONG OF THE DAY, announced onscreen via chyron: Congratulations to Frightened Rabbit. You can get down to all this, silly as it is. The silliness might actually be the best part.
One last huge problem, though. Jacqueline Byers plays a crazed stalker who skulks around backstage, mounting various security guards and whatnot in her quest for laminates; in the pilot, she sneaks into the band’s dressing room and has an extended interaction with a vintage microphone that I will not describe in detail, lest my mother be reading. (Let’s hope they washed the thing afterward.) Even for a tawdry rock-star comedy on premium cable, this is uncouth and off-brand, for Crowe especially. The entire point of Almost Famous is that the girls derided as disposable groupies respected and loved the music more than anyone — more than the other fans, more than the wide-eyed young journalist, more than the rock stars themselves. No doubt the stalker here will prove to have the goldest heart of gold of them all, and a Warren Zevon song will start blaring, and you will grin in spite of yourself. But in the early going, Roadies is far too cynical an attempt at replicating that sort of bygone, heartwarming sincerity. As a famous man playing a less famous man once advised, “Don’t let the swill merchants rewrite you.” And don’t do it yourself.