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Can You Smell the Rock Cooking Up a Presidential Campaign?

Because strangely enough, that’s kinda what’s happening in NBC’s ‘Young Rock’

NBC/Ringer illustration

Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson is such a larger-than-life figure that he basically has his own gravitational pull. To watch Johnson do his thing on screen, you have to accept that he’s capable of handling anything: massive earthquakes, giant rampaging gorillas, 200-story skyscrapers, Vin Diesel’s ego, and so on. Given the sheer size of the dude, along with the fact that he can apparently rip out the front gate of his mansion with his bare hands if it’s malfunctioning, believing he’s capable of incomprehensible feats of strength doesn’t require a big leap of faith. (One of the funniest bits from Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is that, as a video game avatar, Johnson has no weaknesses.) And plenty of moviegoers can smell what the Rock is cooking: He’s been the highest-paid actor in Hollywood for two years running.

There’s no denying Johnson’s commercial viability, even if Hollywood might start running out of new and creative adversaries for him to go up against. (I can only assume that in Hobbs & Shaw 2 he’s going to punch a muscle car so hard its engine explodes on the way to preventing the extinction of humanity.) But will audiences still be drawn to Johnson’s outsized movie star wattage if all he’s selling is himself?

NBC seems to think so: The network’s newest sitcom, premiering Tuesday night, is Young Rock. On the surface, Young Rock sounds like, well, yet another TV series with “young” in the title, joining contemporaries as wide-ranging as CBS’s Young Sheldon (the snarky Big Bang Theory character, but young) and HBO’s The Young Pope (the pope but, and you might want to sit down for this, he’s young). As the title suggests, Young Rock is, quite literally, about the Rock when he was young. (The Rock, I should note—not just Rock, as in Chris Rock; that show was called Everybody Hates Chris.) But the show’s also a little more convoluted than meets the eye. It doesn’t take place in one timeline, but is spread across four, following 10-year-old Johnson being raised among professional wrestlers; 15-year-old Johnson chasing girls in high school; and 18-year-old Johnson playing football at the University of Miami. More curiously is the narrative device that holds it all together: Johnson is relaying all this information about his upbringing in the year 2032, when he’s running for president.

I’m serious. Here’s his future tour bus, equipped with a Rockin’ hologram:

Screenshots via NBC

Setting aside that “Just hang on, I’m coming” is a terrible presidential slogan that would be meme’d to oblivion because it sounds like a euphemism for something, uh, not so presidential, Johnson’s political aspirations might not entirely be rooted in fiction. The actor has previously mulled a future presidential run; putting this into a sitcom about his life story on broadcast television comes across like staging a nationwide focus group. Between quips about throwing Ludacris off a bridge in Jumanji 5 and playing Gene Simmons in a Kiss biopic, the actor and the show seem to want viewers to take President Johnson seriously: part of this bizarre bit of auto-fan-fiction is a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a Dwayne Johnson Library at his old high school. Libraries are such a signifier of presidential ambitions that Veep did a whole episode about it.

Young Rock may be Peak Rock programming, but it also feels like we’ve hit Rock bottom. The sitcom is not without its charms—the earliest timeline has Johnson hanging out with wrestling legends of decades past, including a wholesome day feeding pigeons and watching E.T. with Andre the Giant. (Overall, the show does a great job of casting lookalikes, including for Rocky Johnson, Johnson’s father, and Macho Man Randy Savage.) But the whole “I’m about to become the next president” framing makes Young Rock feel like a vanity project that lacks a requisite self-awareness. There’s a reason Jeremy Renner’s “Jeremy Renner” app—a social platform for die-hard fans of Jeremy Renner to connect about, I guess, how awesome he is?—became a hotbed for trolls and internet toxicity. And it wasn’t because people just really liked engaging with Jeremy Renner’s rock music.

The lack of awareness is such that one of the apparent “controversies” about a potential President Johnson—as seen in a newspaper headline that reads “Too Fast, Too Furious, Too Famous for President?”—is his celebrity status, which either strangely neglects the past four years under a former reality TV host who became commander-in-chief, or even stranger, willingly equates Johnson to that reality TV host. Even for anyone who’s enjoyed Johnson’s on-screen presence across a ton of crowd-pleasing blockbusters, the self-congratulatory tone of Young Rock—and the implication that being the highest-paid star in Hollywood might make him worthy of the highest office in the country—is not very endearing.

Johnson might be one of the hardest working actors in Hollywood—lest we forget, he was on five seasons of HBO’s Ballers in between all the movies he starred in—but Young Rock pushes the boundaries of how much audiences can endure of one person’s victory lap. Johnson’s rise from the pro wrestling circuit to headlining blockbusters is undeniably impressive and filled with interesting details. And who knows? Perhaps a presidential platform really is in the cards in 11 years, and Young Rock will become mandated programming in elementary schools. But what people really seem to want is to be able to simply marvel at Johnson’s considerable (oftentimes literal) strengths. Especially when so many of us are yearning to return to theaters to watch a mindlessly entertaining blockbuster, wouldn’t it be nice to see a giant movie star wear silly outfits and—

Oh, thank God. Disney’s Jungle Cruise can’t come soon enough.