It’s amazing to me that Denis Leary — the angry, hard-smoking, Comedy-Central-roast-friendly comic notorious in comedy circles as Bill Hicks’ unrepentant plagiarist — has had any sort of longevity. Even as a jejune middle-schooler viddying his gargoyleish mug in Comedy Central specials, I could not have dreamed that his was a name I’d still be seeing regularly in entertainment news (and theatrically-released films!) fifteen years later.
But then he did seven seasons of a show I initially thought would be a joke, Rescue Me, on FX, and now he has a new half-hour comedy, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, on the same channel. This one, though, is definitely a joke. Just two episodes in, it’s a trainwreck that’s hard to tear your eyes away from. In the vein of most contemporary comedy shows, it’s a messy, handheld-cam-filled twenty-five minute comedy, but it doesn’t quite give into the absurdist overkill of great shows like Broad City and the greatest music-related show in recent memory, Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle. It walks a line between snappy cultural satire and Spinal Tap-ish non-sequitur.
The only issue is that the “culture” it is supposed to be satirizing is not recognizable, and may not exist. Leary’s Johnny Rock character is the washed-up, drug-addicted lead singer of a fictional early-’90s band, the Heathens, who is supposed to have been a favorite of Nirvana and the Afghan Whigs (?!). In the faux-videotaped live clips we see, the band sounds like almost nothing from the ‘90s (maybe the Black Crowes), or even the ‘80s. In fact, it’s stylistically nebulous to an extent that it’s hard to figure out what type of music it’s sending up. It’s some archdemon mash-up of the New York Dolls and Aerosmith, but with a heavy electric blues bent reminiscent of George Thorogood (I mean like “I Drink Alone,” not even “Bad to the Bone). It’s truly awful to listen to, just objectively, even as a joke. Though it is meant to be “bad” music, it has so little to do with that time period that the humor doesn’t work.
Meanwhile, the Johnny Rock of the present day is not a recognizable figure either. He lives in his past, dressing exactly the same way as he did in his heyday, doing exactly the same amount of drugs, unfamiliar with little in the contemporary landscape outside of the Kim K. sex tape (not, you know, her relationship with Kanye) and Radiohead (ha, so whiny, am I right?). Instead of creating a clever Christopher Guest-like progression for the character — some dead-end job, some strange new hobby or clothing accoutrement — Rock has stayed exactly the same, as has his wife. Apparently, they’ve been pushing for their same rock’n’roll dreams for decades: to get out on big stages, make the magic flow out of the amps. There, I’m actually paraphrasing something Leary’s character actually says to his former bandmate-cum-Lady-Gaga-guitarist Flash (John Corbett).
But of course, this stuff is not the worst part of the show; that would be the miserably awkward comic timing and pacing. Our jumpoff point: Johnny Rock tries to hit on a young woman at a bar who happens to be his daughter, while his wife looks on (yes, it’s as repulsive as it sounds). The girl, Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies), is, predictably, an unknown daughter he had by way of a groupie. Incidentally, she is an aspiring and proficient vocalist, who is hoping to strike it big by reuniting her dad’s old band, and replacing him as the lead singer, while Rock participates by writing songs. There’s a lot of money in this venture for Rock. He works to get the band back together (the other guys hate him, mostly for sleeping with their wives years ago). Then, there are five-to-ten-too-many jokes about how much Flash wants to sleep with Gigi, and how upset Johnny is about it (though he’s just using his daughter for money and she’s horribly dismissive of him). There is a joke about the terminology the band should refer to her breasts, vagina and butt which continues for five minutes or an hour — it’s hard to tell.
There’s a lot of money in this venture for Rock. He works to get the band back together (the other guys hate him, mostly for sleeping with their wives years ago). Then, there are five-to-ten-too-many jokes about how much Flash wants to sleep with Gigi, and how upset Johnny is about it (though he’s just using his daughter for money and she’s horribly dismissive of him). There is a joke about the terminology the band should refer to her breasts, vagina and butt which continues for five minutes or an hour — it’s hard to tell.
The second episode is mostly an extended joke about intervening to get Johnny off of drugs, on which he’s so dependent that he starts begging for Adderall and heart medication. Gigi, his manager and the band force him to write songs sober, which he claims he can’t do. Ultimately, he writes one drippy, strum-along ballad, which, in a unfunny turn that it is the crux of the episode, makes everyone instantly hurry to get him booze and drugs. It’s the only way to get him rockin’ again! But twist: he did it deliberately to get them to crack! End of episode. Sex&Drugs&Rock’n’Roll! That’s what it’s all about, baby.
I cannot speculate about who the intended audience for this show is, exactly. Possibly you, so give it a try! More likely, though, it’s a 40-to-50-something person who would buy into the fictional platonic ideal of rock’n’roll the show is centered around — similar to the one that VH1 tried to prop up when they aired that battle-of-the-bands-type show that featured Flickerstick. Why this show is coming out in 2015 we may never know; you wouldn’t be able to tell. If you want some bizarre, occasionally disturbing TV to harsh your mellow, though, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll is a good quick fix.