“That’s why I love this guy—born to be a rock star.”
There was a time when the world said the same thing about Denis Leary. He broke through on MTV, delivering his acidic, intelligent brand of humor through angry puffs on a cigarette. He was a rock star comedian, and it made perfect sense that he used music in his comedy specials, most notoriously with the song “Asshole.” He took no prisoners and suffered no fools. And so Leary’s new FX comedy “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” (premiering Thursday, July 16th) often feels like a meta-commentary on its own star in that it’s about someone who used to be a rock legend. The first five episodes of the series are somewhat hit and miss, but Leary fans who miss either his stand-up or hit show “Rescue Me,” should be satisfied, and I can easily see the program working out its writing kinks and getting stronger as the cast gels. As anyone who’s been in a band can tell you, it takes some time practicing together to get the chemistry just right.
“Sex & Drug & Rock & Roll” is the story of The Heathens, once considered one of the most important bands in the history of rock. As real rockers like Dave Grohl and Greg Dulli tell us in the premiere, The Heathens influenced every rock band that followed. Dulli describes them as if The Clash had four children. The quartet consisted of singer/songwriter Johnny Rock (Denis Leary), guitarist Flash (John Corbett), bassist Rehab (John Ales) and drummer Bam Bam (Bobby Kelly). They broke up the day after their breakthrough album came out, in keeping with Rock’s ability to destroy everything in his life just as it was starting to work.
Two decades later, Johnny is struggling to make ends meet while fielding offers for Bon Jovi and Bryan Adams cover bands. He’s in a relationship with former back-up singer named Ava (Elaine Hendrix), but hasn’t stayed in touch with his band partner Flash, who now makes a living as Lady Gaga’s guitarist. Johnny’s life changes when the daughter he didn’t know existed named Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies) shows up. She doesn’t want what you might expect from Johnny Rock. She wants to reform The Heathens. One catch, she’s the new singer.
The idea that we will be replaced not only by a younger generation but by our own children is a clever one. It plays on the male ego, something that’s always been intrinsic to the world of rock and roll. Johnny’s daughter is now singing his music better than he ever has, and “Sex & Drugs” is at its best when it takes its characters and its concept semi-seriously. A bit too much of the first few episodes is devoted to name-dropping (we get it, writers, you did some research on popular rock music), but “Sex & Drugs” settles into an interesting groove around episode three and seems to get a bit smarter with each episode. Leary carries the show—a scene in which he’s more upset that his girlfriend slept with Bon Jovi because of the quality of their music and not the actual sex is perfectly timed—and the writing gets smarter. I particularly liked a bit between Johnny and his daughter about how each generation has their own Steve McQueen.
You’ll have to give “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” a bit of time to develop. At the beginning, watching a bunch of old guys sit around a studio discussing code words for female body parts just about forced me to give up on the program. And there are some weak links in the cast (Corbett sometimes looks a little lost, although not Bobby Kelly, who I hope gets more screen time as the show progresses and was similarly great on “Louie” earlier this year), but they might come around eventually. Most of all, for those of us old enough to remember “No Cure For Cancer,” Leary’s breakthrough comedy special, it’s nice to have The Rock Star Comedian back, even if he has mellowed a bit with age. Haven’t we all?