Denis Leary, John Corbett, Elizabeth Gillies, Elaine Hendrix
Regular airtime: Thursdays, 10pm
For 20 years, Denis Leary’s been making his bones by writing hilarious television about working class people. In 2001, there was The Job, starring Leary as a New York City cop named Mike, with all of Leary’s real-life habits of overindulging in tobacco, booze, and women. It was a half-hour show and lasted two seasons before ABC cried uncle. The stellar ensemble cast mostly transitioned over to what would be Leary’s greatest success to date, Rescue Me, the hour-long drama that ran on FX for seven seasons, beginning in 2004. Leary shifted from cops to fire fighters and won a Golden Globe as the main character, Tommy, who was pretty much the same guy as Mike. In 2014, Leary adapted Sirens from a British series about emergency medical technicians to make it a fit for Chicago. He didn’t appear on screen, and USA cancelled the show after its second season for trying to do too much with too little.
So Leary has gone back to FX with the Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll story of Johnny, who also lives in New York, and is also just like Mike and Tommy, except that he’s pursuing flailing dreams as a rock star has-been hoping to drum up a big payday, instead of engaging in noble public service jobs for working class paychecks. This show uses the half-hour model of The Job, rather than the hour-long model of Rescue Me. The hour-long show had ample space for action shots of fighting fires, which become excerpts of the band’s gigs in the new show. The hour-long show also had quiet stretches for self-reflection and bonding between brothers back at the station, which become in Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll family fights at the semi-posh apartment and bonding between bandmates back at the rehearsal studio. Despite the variable time constraints, these translations completely work without feeling too rushed or too truncated.
Essentially, Leary understands that if it ain’t broke, you don’t fix it. He gets in a good groove when playing the same idiotic everyman placed in a slightly different context on each subsequent show. What does change over time is his focus on a particular motif. The Job was among the prototypes for a show with an unsympathetic protagonist and laid the ground work for Leary’s ongoing character traits, while also establishing his trademark realistic feel in the dialogue. Rescue Me was about the importance of keeping families—both biological and chosen—together. Sirens lacked a major thread, probably in large part because it also lacked Leary’s onscreen presence to anchor it.
Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll is primarily about aging. The band is a family, so many of the best Rescue Me questions have space to be asked in this new series, but Leary is also charging ahead and succeeds in inserting a surprising amount of self-reflection for a half-hour format full of punchlines.
Johnny isn’t getting any younger. Every rehearsal, he has to watch his daughter front the band he created long ago; every publicity conversation reminds him he’s no longer the big draw; every fan of the old band has no clue he’s still working. His best year and proudest moment are fading quickly behind him, and his prospects for the future are increasingly beyond his control. The second season opens with the band returning from a singer’s funeral, carrying a giant box of her ashes from the crematory. This experience of near death causes each member of the band to reconsider life in a particular way, bending the arcs of their individual subplots together in a classic existential crisis.
Johnny’s problem is summed up by the only lyric in the theme song other than the title: “I don’t wanna die anonymous”. His reaction to perceived isolation from his band mates, which is, in reality, mostly a projection of his jealousy over their successes without him, causes him to declare he’s launching a new solo project. Any position in a band, other than fronting it, is unpalatable to him. The frontman isn’t anonymous; that spot can somehow save him. Johnny’s so desperate for an ounce of redemption that he seeks it in a much bigger rock star. In episode seven, “Tramps Like Us”, he jumps at the possibility of a heavily staged “chance” meeting with Bruce Springsteen, hoping to play him a couple of new songs. Cue the campy montage where Johnny decides what outfit to wear to the run-in.
Except Leary is trying to convey some sense of how an aging man wants to build something lasting for himself. Johnny’s not actually born to run; he wants to live up to his last name of “Rock” not only as a verb, but also as a noun. He wants a little bit of Springsteen to rub off on him. The drummer, Bam Bam (Robert Kelly), is going through the same thing with Campbell Scott. After accepting a contract to create beats for Scott’s new Hamilton-inspired musical, Bam Bam’s willing to do anything to gain Scott’s affection, including fasting for long periods of time, because it’s part of the method.
In the three episodes that heavily feature Scott, he’s doing a deeply self-aware, fully hilarious impression of his own worst self. He’s pretentious and faux intellectual in the extreme, scheming and storytelling his way through troubles that lurk in the crew’s legitimate questions, uncaring as to whether he should take anyone with him to the top. Scott plays the ultimate sell-out, yet he’s revered by Bam Bam just as Johnny reveres the Boss. The band’s bassist, Rehab (John Ales), at first tries to snap Bam out of it. The musical is, in fact, based on Rehab’s own compositions, and he must decide whether to sell out to Scott’s schlocky production with Broadway potential, or bail on the cash cow for art’s sake.
None of the gentlemen in the band are faring well this season. Guitarist Flash (John Corbett) develops a complex about his inability to kiss Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies) the way she wants him to, and lets his psychological pendulum unfortunately swing all the way to marriage proposal territory. His mid-life crisis is laid bare all over the empty acres in Jersey that he bought to build a farm; he just doesn’t know which wife to install in it. Then again, at least he’s not thinking about writing jingles to make ends meet, like Johnny.
Meanwhile, the women are making out like bandits this season, thanks probably in large part to Leary reuniting with Sirens writer Julieanne Smolinski. She gave verve to the scripts for Netflix’s Grace & Frankie, plus has a long-standing reputation for gender-anchored hilarity in her work for GQ and New York Magazine. Her twitter handle is @BoobsRadley; that tells you everything you need to know. In Smolinski’s script, Gigi experiments with another woman in the sack, kickstarting more than just her heart. This woman eventually becomes a sort of personal guru to her in both life and work, opening some new avenues for Gigi’s career through her stronger social media presence.
Ava’s (Elaine Hendrix) career is also taking off; this fact ends up to be the main source of antagonism in season two. Johnny can’t stand it that his back-up singer is finally taking a crack at center stage. The band’s efforts are therefore split between commitments to Gigi and to Ava, resulting in conflict and hurt feelings all around.
As the band’s relationships collapse in a heap of ugly self-doubt and selfish fame-seeking behavior, a new character arrives to drive the bus down their collective highway to hell: Gigi’s mom, the aptly named Cat (Callie Thorne). One of the best reasons to watch Rescue Me was the character of Sheila, also played by Callie Thorne. Thorne and Leary have onscreen chemistry to spare, both in their dialogue and in bed. Cat resurfaces too helpfully and conveniently not to be hiding something. This season wisely leaves her agenda unclear, but Leary needs to upgrade this live wire from guest star to regular cast for season three.
Unfortunately, FX has yet to declare whether it’ll renew Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll for a third season. It was at this point that the death knell sounded for both The Job and Sirens, but Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll ought to get to stay. Leary has successfully held fast to the best features of each of his other three shows, gathering momentum as he goes along. This one will never be tonally entitled to the high drama of Rescue Me, but for the half-hour format, this is certainly as gritty as it gets. It’s a keeper for the fully-formed, large and in charge female characters alone, which shows Leary is streamlining his weaknesses effectively.
So don’t knock Denis Leary for doing what he does best. Yeah, it’s all too familiar, and it’s simultaneously still a far cry from the other three shows. Diehard fans will get the satisfaction of nuances and tweaks through this new mortality thread, while viewers coming late to the game will get a sense of his greatest hits. This is because Leary knows something that Johnny actually doesn’t: there’s no such thing as a clean break with the past. Our only real shot at a legacy is in building on the best of what we’ve already accomplished.