Here we go. No preamble. Denis Leary’s Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll is the best current TV show about a fictional rock band.
Yeah, OK. Some caveats. The competition is super lousy, and includes the likes of HBO’s recently canceled Vinyl (which will never get the chance to allege that coked-up white people invented, like, trip-hop) and Cameron Crowe’s wayward Showtime jam Roadies (which is like a “Pissing Calvin” decal but with Cameron Crowe pissing on a younger version of Cameron Crowe). This show, whose second season begins tonight on FX, is This Is Spinal Tap by comparison. It’s also, crucially, shorter. You can tread water in anything — even a sea of retarded sexuality and bad poetry — if you only have to do it for half an hour.
This is Leary’s second series for FX — he also cocreated and starred in the firefighter dramedy Rescue Me, which ended in 2011 after seven seasons (same as Burn Notice!) and a modest amount of critical acclaim. But he’s probably better off not even trying to be a prestige guy: The Emmys wouldn’t touch this bawdy, ridiculous romp if every single human attending the Emmy Awards were raptured on-camera for three years straight. The banal and uncouth promos are not promising — unless your DVR fast-forward game is immaculate, you’ve probably winced through quite a few during commercial breaks for The Americans — and younger folks most likely know Leary himself only as the Crabby Truck-Ad Guy. (OK? OK? OK?) But SDRR’s refusal to pander to you, or to anyone, is almost refreshing; there’s a nobility to such ignobility. (OK?)
The plot is simple, and also borderline nonsense: Leary stars as Johnny Rock, disgraced frontman for downtown-NYC cult heroes the Heathens, who broke up in the early ’90s on the cusp of fame, sending him into a 25-year tailspin of narcissism, substance abuse, and charming-fuckup failure. Now pushing 50 from the wrong end, he’s shacked up with his former backup singer and longtime improbable soulmate, Ava, but estranged from everyone else; one night in a bar, he hits on a sultry 21-year-old, Gigi, who wilds out and knees him in the balls and informs him that she’s his long-lost daughter, hellbent on getting the band back together to launch her own singing career.
Thanks to her songwriter mother, Gigi is flush with both immensely flattering lighting and cash, and sets everyone up with an apartment, and studio time, and any other modest sets the resulting show requires. Also! John Corbett, in his second major role in a TV program with the word Sex in the title, costars as a hair-dying guitarist named Flash, who spends most of his time banging Gigi (who is less than half his age) and shuffling around in an open bathrobe he really ought to close.
Mild, gently ribald hilarity ensues.
Question for you. If a woman mutters, “I wish my tits still looked like that” to another woman, gesturing toward a third woman sitting across the room, does that pass the Bechdel test? Yes? No? “Close tab”? Let’s just say that I don’t have a relationship with any human being that’s as loving and intimate as this show’s relationship with the word tits. You want stats? The word tits appeared at least once in eight out of 10 first-season episodes, though only one out of the first four this season, though as compensation you can look forward to multiple lesbian entanglements and more John Corbett robe action in general. There is much leering and a goodly amount of cringing involved: Leary goes on an ugly Twitter-egg rant about Kim Kardashian in last year’s pilot, and Elaine Hendrix, as Ava, heroically delivers lines ranging from the defensible (“One minute I wanted to fuck your brains out, next minute, pretty sure I already had”) to the less defensible (“She was a giant flaming whore!”). This show is defiantly lowbrow through and through; the question is whether you can convince yourself that it’s also, somehow, Secretly Progressive, or at least valiantly trying to be.
There’s not much else to think about; the musical component here is definitely nonsense. The Heathens (rounded out by a bassist named Rehab and a drummer named Bam Bam) are clearly PG-rated ’70s-rock hedonists absurdly touted as unsung ’90s rock heroes — Dave Grohl shows up in the pilot, raving that Nirvana never would’ve even formed had they not caught the Heathens at CBGB, which doesn’t work even as a joke. Every so often the show feints in the direction of forward momentum and tries to actually advance Gigi’s career: She has a brief, confused dalliance as a vapid, Auto-Tuned, sexed-up pop star, which allows the show to shamelessly objectify her while decrying the fancy-cheese-and-limo music industry for doing the same. (She then almost gets signed to Sub Pop in the very next episode.) But SDRR works better with no arc and no stakes at all, approximating a gently nihilistic group-hang sorta vibe, a far sunnier It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where the only relevant plot point is “the women should probably kill all the men.”
Leary, who as the creator/executive producer/mastermind here wrote most of Season 1 and directed some of it, is touting Season 2 as a woke-bae sorta sea change, saying very cogent things — “You’re never going to be able to write a woman the way a woman could” — and hailing the addition of screenwriter and internet hero Julieanne Smolinski. She wrote the second episode of Season 2, which does indeed feature two lesbian trysts (plus Johnny Rock ejaculating in a lady’s hair), but also the sharpest, most disarmingly human interactions on-screen thus far. (Which is to say Gigi gets a woman her own age to talk to, even if that woman is a lesbian blues-punk-howling unicorn.)
This season has copious Hamilton jokes and David Bowie shout-outs and general middle-aged-bro boorishness, but you’ll find yourself drawn to both Ava the character (who’s going solo) and Elaine Hendrix the actress (who’s valiantly trying to upgrade her material). Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll is wildly imperfect even as mindless discomfort food, but it gives you something and someone to root for, other than its cancellation. That’ll do, male chauvinist pigs. That’ll do.