The career of Denis Leary has always been a fascinating one. While many often find themselves divided over the merits of his stand-up, there are few that can deny the man knows comedy. Leary knows how to make an audience laugh and he knows how to do it in a way that still tells a story. Ultimately, this is what made Rescue Me great. It was a show full of depth and intrigue over what it meant to be a “man” in the modern age, while still making hilarious jokes about penis size and bowel movements. This concept of being able to “find the funny” within the confines of a real narrative is something apparent in just about every Leary produced project. However, the one piece of consistency in every Leary TV show, be it The Job, Rescue Me or Sirens, is the one thing missing from the comedian’s latest work, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, and it’s the one thing that could make or break the show going forward: a creative partner.
Created by and starring Leary, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll follows the life of “Johnny Rock,” the once acclaimed lead-singer of rock band, The Heathens. Unfortunately, things haven’t gone well for Johnny in his later years. That all changes the day his long-lost daughter shows up with a proposal: get back together with the band and write her songs, and in exchange, he’ll make money. A lot of money. However, getting back together with the band he blew-up 25 years ago is easier said than done.
The most important thing to note about that synopsis is its first sentence: “created by and starring Leary.” In the past, Denis has almost always worked with a collaborator. The Job and Rescue Me were both a co-creation between Leary and Peter Tolan. Sirens was a co-creation between Leary and Bob Fisher. Leary is an amazingly funny and talented individual who is fully capable of collaboration. But, when his persona is let off its leash on projects like Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, it becomes clear why his stand-up is as divisive as it is. The “attitude” isn't easily accessible to most in the long-run.
Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll is a lot of fun, but it’s very rough around the edges. Guys like Tolan and Fisher knew how to take the ideals of Leary’s world-view (which is compelling at times) and apply it to stories that can use an infusion of the comedian’s “voice” in specific places without going off the rails. Ultimately, it was this battle that Rescue Me faced almost constantly. Because Leary was such a massive presence on the show as its lead actor, Tolan had to work twice as much to make sure to pull the comedian back at times in order to keep things grounded in some sense of approachability.
In the new FX sitcom, Leary has essentially transformed the stand-up comedian people were introduced to in No Cure For Cancer into an aging rock star with issues. It’s compelling. It’s fun. But it’s not easy. Not “not easy” like Louie isn’t easy, mind you. It’s just not fully formed. When Leary loses that second person to pull him back from the cliff creatively, it becomes clear just how close and often he teeters on the edge of it. It’s enjoyable at first, but the more the audience realizes how close he is to stepping off for real, the less fun it becomes.
Ultimately, based on the first five episodes, there’s a very good show in Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll. Could it have benefited from a full hour run time? Maybe. Could it have benefited from a creative partner alongside Leary? Most definitely. But what we do get every week is worth watching, and it’s possible the show could transform into something magical by the end of its first season. That said, there’s work to be done, and like the band we’re following, there’s room for improvement. This is a good start, but what the show’s really going to need is a great finish… and maybe a solid encore as well.
Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll premieres Thursday, July 16th at 10pm on FX.