TV

Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll: Season 2

Megan Volpert

Denis Leary investigating his own mortality is just one way season two of Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll shows why the series deserves a third season.


Sex&Drugs;&Rock;&Roll;

Airtime: Thursdays, 10pm
Cast: Denis Leary, John Corbett, Elizabeth Gillies, Elaine Hendrix
Subtitle: Season 2
Network: FX
Air dates: 2016-07 to 2016-09
Amazon

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.

7

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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