It takes a while to figure out why the new Showtime series Roadies feels different from every other prestige cable drama. Look closely, though, at an early scene in the premiere: The Staton-House Band's road crew gathers in a circle to prepare for a day of plugging in amplifiers and taping down cables. What's that on their faces? It's something so rare on TV these days that it's almost hard to recognize. They're smiling.
And they don't just have smiles. They have Cameron Crowe smiles — as beatific and quietly satisfied as William Miller's in Almost Famous or Jerry Maguire's … well, you know. The Roadies creator wrote and directed this pilot episode, "Life Is a Carnival," and anyone familiar with films like Say Anything … and Singles (or even the much-criticized Elizabethtown and Aloha) will see his personality all over this show. Crowe's characters don't just have jobs; they have callings. They know they're not exactly in the place where they've always wanted to be. And that's when the trouble starts.
"Life Is a Carnival" quickly introduces three characters in crisis, at least as Crowe understands the meaning of the word. The series' spiritual center is Kelly Ann (Imogen Poots), a smart, creative young woman who is getting ready to leave the Staton-House tour. Her stated explanation is that she's been accepted into film school, but the real reason is that she's just not "feeling the music" anymore. In that, she has a lot in common with Bill (Luke Wilson), a veteran tour manager in the midst of a midlife crisis, and Shelli (Carla Gugino), a production manager who's spent too long separated from her husband (who does the same job for Taylor Swift).
Job titles like "production manager" are an immediate tip-off that Roadies will be a little different from most rock-and-roll stories, which tend to be about scrappy acts trying to catch a break on the nightclub circuit. That's never really been Crowe's scene. When he started writing for Rolling Stone as a teenager, he was assigned to cover the platinum-level bands like Yes, Led Zeppelin, and the Eagles that his colleagues didn't respect. Later, he married (and then divorced) Nancy Wilson, co-founder of Heart. Crowe's likely spent more time in the labyrinthine corridors of big-city arenas than in the green rooms of dingy college-town venues.
The first episode benefits from that experience. At its best, "Life Is a Carnival" captures what a mammoth, multi-limbed beast it is to put on a big-time rock-and-roll show. The crew pulls into New Orleans at sunup and begins marking tasks off of a long itinerary that includes everything from wheeling a shiny black piano into place (and making sure no one smudges it) to placating a disgruntled opening act (the real-life alt-folk group the Head and the Heart). Crowe fills the hour with fascinating details about the herculean effort that goes into preparing just a few hours of performance. As always, the writer-director is especially drawn to the little rituals, superstitions, legends, and codes that bind a community of dreamers and nomads.
But because this is drama — light drama, but still — Crowe also introduces complications that feel like contrivances. The biggest piece of plot is the arrival of Reg Whitehead (Rafe Spall), a British money manager who's been brought in by the Staton-House Band and their corporate overlords to maximize the tour's profits. One of his first moves is to ditch Phil (Ron White), a soulful old cuss who's been carrying instruments for rock legends since the ’60s. As the first season plays out, the addition of Reg may allow Roadies to offer some knowing commentary on how the music business is changing in the age of YouTube and Spotify. In this premiere, the "artists versus suits" routine comes off as overly broad.
It doesn't help that this show's main theme, at least in the early going, focuses on relatively privileged folks suffering from a vague sense of unease. This is why Roadies' distinctive positivity doesn't register right away. In the first scene of "Life Is a Carnival," Bill has vigorous sex with a petite college-aged woman — marking him as yet another male protagonist of a cable drama who works through his angst by sleeping around. For all that Crowe has to offer as a rock expert and a sweet-natured storyteller, the rough experience of HBO's Vinyl haunts this first installment.
The long shadow of Crowe's creative failures looms over Roadies, too. The generosity of his early films has lately been rendered as mere sprawl, as the likes of Aloha piled on ideas and characters with no clear sense of which were worth following. "Life Is a Carnival" does the same, introducing too many premises and subplots — including the obvious romantic attraction between Bill and Sherri, and the arrival of Kelly Ann's plugged-in music-geek brother Wes (played by Colson "Machine Gun Kelly" Baker). At times, the episode feels like the rough outline for a film that Crowe might've made from this same material.
If it had been a film, it would have been received no better than Aloha. The Roadies pilot suffers from its creator's worst tendencies, including characters' propensity to deliver long, well-rehearsed speeches about their values. There's a distressing predictability to this episode, which telegraphs every one of its punches. To wit: As soon as Kelly Ann talks about a supercut she's made of movie characters experiencing life-changing revelations and running to resolve them, it's obvious that she'll be doing the same by the end of the hour. She'll inevitably decide to stay on the tour.
So why does Roadies still seem so promising? Maybe it's because TV seems like a good fit for Crowe, who tends to be better at crafting keenly observed and movingly staged individual scenes than in figuring out how to develop any narrative momentum from them. Flawed as it may be, any show that features two or three great Crowe moments a week should be worth watching.
But even if the series flops, maybe it'll be seen by a TV producer or two who'll realize there's something to be said for building serialized dramas around characters you'd actually want to hang out with. The kind with enthusiasms. The kind who smile.
- Although Crowe is the credited writer-director of episode one (and will direct the entire first season), he's not the only creative voice we'll hear this year. Next week's episode was written by co-producer Winnie Holzman, of My So-Called Life fame. Plus, J.J. Abrams is an executive producer, so he may have chimed in when he wasn't off Star Warring.
- Leave it to Crowe to have a character (a bus driver played by Luis Guzman) listen not just to Bob Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue," but to the New York session version of the song that didn't make it onto Blood on the Tracks. Also leave it to Crowe to make sure that his characters have a "song of the day" (in this case Frightened Rabbit's "I Wish I Was Sober"), and to make Wes into a bootleg-broker who can get people rare copies of Replacements shows. The man is nothing if not nerdy when it comes to rock and roll.
- I'll miss comedian Ron White if it turns out that Phil's firing means he won't be on the show. At the same time, I confess to being a little turned off by the scene where he pulls out a gun after he's fired (for cheating the band and bilking their fans, basically). These days, it's not so funny to see a TV character "comically" threaten to shoot.
- I didn't say much about the Staton-House Band because we don't know much about them at the moment, except that they're willing to change the set list they've been playing for a year because a disillusioned roadie complained. Roadies will have to explain who these dudes are, and why they're beloved enough to be playing arenas.
- At the risk of ending on a bum note, we have to discuss the stalker groupie, Natalie (played by Jacqueline Byers). Her scenes are easily the worst of the episode, in part because she's inexplicably dressed like a refugee from Almost Famous and, in part, because her big moment — when she masturbates with the microphone that Bruce Springsteen used in his "Dancing in the Dark" video — is just kind of icky. Give Crowe credit for being willing to go weird, but the whole microphone sequence plays like a spontaneous idea that no one could talk the boss out of. And we've learned in recent years, "a bunch of random-but-memorable scenes" Crowe isn't the best Crowe.