Glenn Garvin TV Reviews

Denis Leary Has Aging Rockers in His Sights in New FX Comedy

New series premieres tonight.


Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, FX

Making fun of decrepit rock and roll stars is a tradition almost as old as rock and roll itself. The October 1962 issue of Mad magazine had a piece titled "The Rock 'N' Roll Senior Citizens' Problem," in which Elvis Presley (then a creaky 27 years of age), Frankie Avalon (22) and Ricky Nelson (also 22) sat around a nursing home, senescently rambling on about the days of hula hoops and the Twist. In the end, President Kennedy takes to television to beg Americans for help for enfeebled rockers. "After all, look what a wonderful thing they've done for us," the president reminds his audience. "They've stopped singing." (Thus did Mad found another venerable tradition, the youth-supported business seething with contempt for its own customers.)

Rock stars themselves seemed to think the idea was a hoot. I once listened to a radio interview in which Mick Jagger snorted with derision as he imagined himself on stage singing "Satisfaction" at the age of 35, then a distant eight years in the future. Perhaps he chuckled to himself as he took the stage to perform the song with the Rolling Stones in Atlanta earlier this week, a few days short of his 72nd birthday. Jagger, 88-year-old Chuck Berry and other Baby Boomer favorites long ago turned the Methusalah Rock joke into reality, and now Gen X acts like Billy Idol—he'll be 60 later this year—are following them.

It's the Gen Xers who are the subject of FX's Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, a comic look at the I-guess-I-don't-hope-I-die-before-I-get-old-after-all phenomenon. Series creator Denis Leary plays Johnny Rock, a 50-ish rocker who never quite rose to cult status. "He was infamous for his ability to break up every single band he started," a TV documentary notes, including his last one, which perished "due to a series of violent vomiting incidents" 25 years ago.

Johnny's living a hand-to-guitar existence, interrupted by a surprise visit by Gigi, a 20-something daughter he never knew about. Armed with a voice that could stop a truck and a thick wad of trust-fund cash from her mom, Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies, part of the original cast of the Broadway musical 13) has come to New York not looking for Johnny the dad but Johnny the songwriter: She's grown up listening to the only album of the Heathens, Johnny's best band, in which her mother was a backup singer.

In fact, Gigi wants to reunite the Heathens (minus her mom, whose verdict on Johnny—"a lazy, selfish, pothead alcoholic with a death wish"—remains fixed). That requires some delicate work; the band imploded the day its album dropped after lead guitarist Flash (John Corbett, Sex And The City) discovered Johnny was sleeping with his wife. Other members are mostly—barely walking, in some cases—casualties of the combined infirmities of middle age and rock and roll, from heart conditions to drugs to egomaniacal obsession.

Flash, though a successful session player, broods incessantly that his place in rock and roll history has been stolen by Slash. ("All I know is when I first met him, his name was Saul Hudson. Little Jewish kid from the Upper West Side. Two years later he's called Slash.") The bass player (known as Regab for eminently guessable reasons; he's played by John Ales of Burn Notice) is looking for a backer to produce his 26-song account of the Irish potato famine. Though Jewish, he passed on the Holocaust because it has too much of a "History Channel vibe." Drummer Bam Bam (Robert Kelly, the kid brother on Louie) has ditched drugs for food: "My trigger is pepperoni pizza. And jelly donuts. Cake. Salmon… ." And then there's remaining backup singer, Ava (Elaine Hendrix, Romy & Michele's High School Reunion), who has remained Johnny's girlfriend for years despite continuous revelations of his past infidelities, including a one-nighter with Joan Jett. "Did you even ask if she was into a three-way?" demands the enraged Ava.

Trying to reassemble this collection of neurotic and loony jigsaw pieces into a band proves problematic until Gigi hits on the idea of taking the whole group to see a New Age therapist, who after a series of team-building therapies pronounces his carefully considered diagnosis: "You people are the worst. You're like a symphony of narcissism … truly the most fucked-up band in the history of rock and roll." The delighted Heathens prepare to hit the road.

Leary, one of the sharpest comic writers in television, has a feast on this stuff, lampooning the infirmities of his geezer characters even as he lashes out at the current rock generation with the fury of a scorned old hippie. ("Every time I hear  a Radiohead song, I feel like I'm failing the SATs all over again," acidly observes Johnny.) He's at his best subverting clichés. The big forgiveness scene in which Johnny solemnly declares it was wrong for him to have slept with Flash's wife is interrupted with Ava's bored disclosure that "she slept with everybody. … She was a giant flaming whore."

There's virtually nothing he won't mock. When his bandmates tell Johnny he has to say sober during a song-writing session, he warns them that John Lennon produced work like Strawberry Fields Forever when wasted, songs about baking bread while sober. "He'd gotten so boring that if Mark David Chapman hadn't of shot him, Yoko Ono would have," Johnny declares. It's only a matter of time, I'm certain, until a scene starts with Courtney Love in line at the customer-service desk in a sporting-goods store, where the clerk is saying, "I don't think we can give you a refund, even if it was used only once…"

Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll. FX. Premieres today, June 16, 10 p.m. EDT.