[This is a review of the Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll season 2 premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
Even during its first season, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll was a show about time… well, the passing of it, anyway. Once the series moved past the initial layer of jokes about how narcissistic, shallow, and self-destructive its main character – Denis Leary‘s feather-haired Johnny Rock – was, the half-hour comedy worked hard to prove it had something else going on. That was a tall order. Like Johnny Rock, the series is as compelled to nurture a manufactured persona (or brand) as it is to reconcile with the fact that, to a certain extent, it’s all a façade, a way to get people to watch and to keep them watching. Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll isn’t just a title; it’s a mantra repeated over and over again – sometimes by the characters themselves – as though it is a lifestyle brand they have been paid to promote. But as season 2 gets underway, it’s clear the show is eager to explore something beyond the deliberate showiness of its title – but also to have a good, borderline hedonistic, time doing so.
When the series began, Johnny Rock was no longer a headlining musician – he was a footnote. It’s sort of like how the show isn’t really about the music business or even the eccentric, excessive dispositions that emerge from the weird industry that cultivates huge personalities as a selling point. A weekly, 30-minute comedy about an aging, once-famous musician embarking on a creative comeback by writing songs for the daughter he only recently met doesn’t seem like fertile ground to be “big idea” kind of show, but it kind of is – or at least its working to become that with season 2.
The new season begins with ‘All the Glitters is Gold,’ an episode that goes heavy on mortality and even sets it up as a potential through-line for the rest of the season. The premiere kicks off with Johnny, Ava (Elaine Hendrix), Flash (John Corbett), Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies), Bam Bam (Robert Kelly), and Rehab (John Ales) returning from their friend Micki’s funeral. The scene sets the tone for next 20 or so minutes, as the crew gather around Micki’s ashes and somehow manage to make her death all about themselves. There’s an underlying sense that, although everyone is acknowledging their own mortality, it’s really about what level of immortality they’ve secured in their lifetime. Among all the wistful jokes about the excesses they once enjoyed – and still do for the most part – there is a part of them that recognizes being one of The Heathens (or a heathen) has left them with little to be remembered for.
Co-written by Leary and Bob Fisher, ‘All that Glitters is Gold’ makes note of David Bowie’s death earlier this year. But unlike references to things like Led Zepplin, Van Halen, or any number of music industry-related topics, the comment on Bowie’s passing doesn’t feel like par for the course, or a simple anecdote intended to paint these fictional characters into a space where they can interact with and talk about real-life music and musicians. In a sense, it’s a little like Silicon Valley dropping references to Steve Jobs or Bill Gates: they’re to be expected, but beyond namechecking it only serves to establish that this world exists in one the viewer is familiar with. In other words: Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll also likes Led Zepplin and even (apparently) appreciates Van Hagar. But the mention of Bowie serves more than to establish the series is up on current events. For Johnny and Flash, and everyone else for whom their moment in the sun has ostensibly come and gone, Bowie’s fame and his importance to the industry is such that his death, as surprising as it was for his fans, and it coming so soon after the release of his final album, Black Star and its single ‘Lazarus’ – which Ava makes a point to reference – is, in some weird way, an ideal for these characters to strive towards.
Thankfully, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll does what it can to make that goal a funny part of its characters’ development, though the premiere offers some mixed results on that front. Naturally nostalgic following the death of Micki, the group finds a VHS tape of old Heathens gigs and has it transferred to DVD – another nod to the inexorable passage of time – only to discover that it holds evidence of Ava and Flash’s year-long affair in Nashville, following the break-up of the band. The outing of their affair threatens to derail the episode’s mostly successful emphasis on these characters’ heretofore obliviousness of their own mortality, by refocusing on Johnny’s hypocritical narcissism, as he takes the revelation as a sign he should strike out on a solo career or make his mark by copying Sammy Hagar’s recipe for success by developing the Johnny Rock equivalent of Cabo Wabo.
Although it veers into a well-worn formula about self-centered fame-seekers, the premiere manages to get some decent laughs from the scramble by these characters to manage their image in the event of their death. The funniest bit comes from Flash and Rehab, though. As the two are walking together after Flash’s affair with Ava has gone public (within the group, anyway), Rehab describes the photos he’s taking as the sort of thing that captures Flash as he is now, not as he once was, and how they can be what the media gloms on to when he eventually dies. The moment ends with Flash posing for Rehab in front of a garage door, evoking the photographs Jimmy King took of Bowie shortly before he passed away. For Johnny, Ava, Rehab, and Flash, the moment is funny and sad in a way that plays up the weird misfortune of these characters: they’re not successful enough to be remembered by everyone, and they’re too old to die young and have that be their legacy.
On a certain level it feels like Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll is still figuring out what kind of show it wants to be, but the serialization this time around has found an interesting thematic foundation to anchor each week’s storyline. As the show progresses, it will be interesting to see how successfully it can find the funny in these characters’ attempts to claim (or reclaim) the fame they want so desperately to be defined by.
Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll continues next Thursday with ‘Rebel Rebel’ @10pm on FX.