Screenwriters Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver know how to get the party started and keep it lively.
I’m of a generation that put Cameron Crowe on a pretty high pedestal, and I’ve heard that from a number of colleagues of a similar age recently who are pinning their hopes on Showtime’s “Roadies” as the comeback vehicle for the once-so-essential writer/director after misfires like “We Bought a Zoo” and “Aloha.” The good news is that it’s very watchable, consistently enjoyable and even shows sparks of that Crowe wit and emotional honesty that drove films like “Say Anything …” and “Almost Famous.” The bad news is that it feels a little thin in places, almost like a Crowe’s Greatest Hits.
Seriously, if you made anyone who knows anything about Crowe watch the pilot of "Roadies" they’d be able to guess who created it. Mike McCready (of Pearl Jam) is name-checked within minutes, as are Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Replacements. Someone says that the only two things one needs to live are oxygen and family. And that’s before the credits. And, again, Crowe has made a project about how humans are emotional more than rational, defined by the people they know and love more than anything else. But there’s something comforting about just how much “Roadies” plays to Crowe’s strengths as a writer and director, even if one seems like it would have made a bigger impact on the television landscape a decade ago.
Luke Wilson and Carla Gugino may be the “biggest names” on “Roadies,” but the show actually belongs to Imogen Poots. Her character is the standard Crowe protagonist—someone set on a different path by an emotional outburst and meeting the right person at the right time. She even has a “Jerry Maguire”-like moment in the pilot. Poots plays Kelly Ann, who we meet on her last day working on the tour of the fictional Staton-House Band. She’s ready to move on with her life and find a job that sparks her more creatively, but her plans change with the arrival of a money man (Rafe Spall) who has been brought in to streamline expenses and the aforementioned outburst. At the same time, Bill (Wilson) is given more responsibility—not his strongest asset—and his fellow tour leader Shelli (Gugino), well, doesn’t have much of a character yet. She has a slightly troubled marriage, but we never meet her husband. Bill sleeps around and may have an interest in Shelli, but that’s about it. And there are other supporting characters flitting around backstage, including ones played by Keisha Castle-Hughes and Luis Guzman, but they’re incredibly loosely defined and even inconsistent over the first three episodes. For now, we don’t see Bill, Shelli and Kelly Ann as characters as much as we do mouthpieces for Crowe. To that end, we get more speeches about the power of music and history of rock ‘n’ roll than we do character development.
The fact that the characters all have echoes of their creator more than their own personalities, combined with the behind-the-scenes aesthetic à la “Sports Night” and “The Newsroom,” gives “Roadies” notable commonalities with Aaron Sorkin, with less cynicism. Like Sorkin’s best shows, we’re given a window into the behind-the-scenes people who make the on-camera personalities tick, but Crowe is far more interested in human emotion than pure process. It's hard to even tell what most of these people actually do. He peppers his scripts with lines like “You either love what you do or you get the fuck out,” but you get the feeling that he still means it. I’m sure people roll their eyes at Crowe’s sentimentality, and those people shouldn’t sign up for this tour, but it never felt calculated to me. The end of the premiere of “Roadies” is SO “Crowe” that I laughed out loud, but I loved it for the same reason. It may be cheese, but some of the best, emotionally moving music of all time is built on a similar foundation of unabashed sentimentality. He makes no apologies. Yes, he needs to strengthen his characters, and I hope that comes over the course of the first season, but I’m willing to let the set list play out. I still trust the man who wrote it.