Last week's Roadies premiere did a decent job of introducing the premise and setting, but it was oddly lax when it came to showcasing the cast's biggest star. Luke Wilson's character — the Staton-House Band's tour manager, Bill — came across as another middle-aged lost boy on premium cable, surrounded by needy folks who don't appreciate how hard it is to be the boss.
But in this week's episode, Roadies starts making proper use of one of its key assets. There's a moment early in "What Would Phil Do?" where Bill tries to revive one of the tour's lapsed rituals — the "morning circle," formerly led by ousted super-roadie Phil — and as the character fumbles his way through a mishmash of inspirational clichés and personal anecdotes, Wilson once again resembles the good-hearted, mildly overwhelmed guy he played in comedies like Bottle Rocket and Idiocracy. The circle disperses quickly after the tour's penny-pinching business manager Reg interrupts, right when Bill hits the peak of his speech. Wilson's rarely been as sympathetic or as lovable onscreen as when Bill mumbles, "He came at kind of a crucial time," while sadly watching the Staton-House crew wander off.
"What Would Phil Do?" takes its name — and theme — from the T-shirts that the roadies have taken to wearing in the wake of Phil's firing. This episode is dominated by the idea that something vital has been lost, namely the sense of deeper connection and tradition that Phil represented. Bill doesn't have the same effortless cool, and so he spends this hour suffering through the physical symptoms of intense stress, while simultaneously trying to handle the loss of an opening act, Reg's morale-busting budget-slashing, and Tom Staton's festering annoyance at Christopher House over the latter's new habit of making a "fingertip kiss" gesture onstage.
Like the first episode, "What Would Phil Do?" takes place mostly over the course of one day at one venue, pre-concert. And as with that premiere, the second spends a lot of time dwelling on Kelly Ann's existential hand-wringing. Last week, she agonized over a decision to leave for film school. This week, she wonders why she stayed on the tour, since she keeps getting stuck with crummy jobs like running the teleprompter and her cohorts still haven't given her a nickname. (Even her latecomer brother Wes has one: "Wes Coast.") Kelly Ann's big scene involves a long conversation with House, then delivering a goofy quasi-metaphorical rant about her hatred of raisins. Roadies co-producer Winnie Holzman is credited with the script for this episode, but the raisins speech is very much in the spirit of the show's creator Cameron Crowe, whose characters often have uniquely firm convictions.
Nevertheless, Kelly Ann's storyline is mostly just a retread of what we've already seen in the previous chapter. This isn't unusual for a new TV series: By using the second episode to "co-pilot" the pilot, you can reinforce who everybody is and what they do. "What Would Phil Do?" accomplishes this in fairly smart way, by giving Reg a subplot that sees him interviewing every remaining crewmember to see which ones he can fire. That allows Holzman and Crowe (who directs the episode) to reintroduce all of the supporting characters, underlining how these technicians and handymen see their work as spiritual missions to "sense danger" or "protect the bass" or "fix broken things."
The other goal of these scenes is to make Reg seem like an okay guy. He chooses not to fire anybody, and it turns out that he's the secret benefactor behind the WWPD? shirts. Aside from that, "What Would Phil Do?" doesn't have a lot to it, story-wise. It's a welcome change of pace to see a television drama where the stakes are so low, since much of Roadies rides on the heroes attaining some vague sense of personal satisfaction. But there's a fine line between purposefully subtle and just lacking the goods.
Still, if Roadies intends to keep coasting on a good vibe and a unique milieu, at least both remain strong in episode two. There's no other show on the air right now that could (or would) spin a scene out of a character hurriedly consulting a fan site for lyrics to upload into a teleprompter in the waning minutes before a concert. And even if the conversation that Reg has with Bill and Shelli about potential Staton-House revenue streams is just a standard "placating the suits" kind of moment, it still matters that it takes place in front of the band's merch table — both for symbolic effect and because the actual background image of arena concourses and souvenirs is visually striking.
It also matters that Holzman and Crowe so capably flesh out Bill this week. Whether he's quoting basketball coach John Wooden in front of an American flag, or he's talking about how, as a boy, he read the Led Zeppelin bio Hammer of the Gods instead of Sounder, Bill establishes himself as a pop culture true-believer, a character who assembled classic-rock lore and sports heroes into his own personal religion. That's what makes it all the more poignant when Bill goes up to Chris House — his friend since junior high — to warn him about the onstage finger-kissing, and instead ends up saying "right away" when his buddy/employer asks him to unclog a toilet. At its best in the early going, Roadies excels at showing how much some people are willing to suffer to feel like they're a part of something larger than themselves.
The big twist at the end of "What Would Phil Do?" is that after House agrees to keep his fingers away from his lips, the fans start doing the gesture en masse, forcing the rocker to change his mind. There are two ways to read this: Maybe the ending means that Bill still can't control the behemoth that is this tour, or maybe the crowd's spontaneous expression of adulation shows that something new — even when it's divisive — can still become a tradition.
- This week's tour stop is in Memphis, which the crew heads to right after Little Rock, judging by the scenery we see early in the episode. Given that the Staton-House Band was in New Orleans in episode one, that should mean — logistically speaking — that only a few days have passed. However, the show seems to imply that it's been more like a few weeks. I'm going to go ahead and blame Bill for this. Poor map skills, perhaps.
- That said, I liked the few bits of Memphis local color, such as the waddling ducks in the lobby of the Peabody. I'd like to see more of that kind of thing. It's what makes Roadies unique.
- With The Head and The Heart having departed the tour, Roadies can officially pivot to its version of a running joke: an endless procession of opening acts, which will essentially allow the series to have a special musical guest each week. In this episode it's a heavy Canadian blues-rock combo named Reignwolf. (I confess to being unfamiliar with them before now.) They looked and sounded pretty exciting … or I should say he looked good, since apparently Reignwolf is the nom-de-rock of Jordan Cook, a one-man band who only uses other musicians when he plays live.
- Phil rebounded quickly from his Staton-House firing: He's now working on the Taylor Swift tour with Shelli's husband (who apparently doesn't care that Phil took advantage of Katrina victims). In this episode, the roadie gets ready to join Taylor on a trip into outer space — another of those more-absurd-than-necessary touches that Roadies keeps throwing in.
- Since the first episode was mostly about Kelly Ann, and the second is mostly about Bill, can the third one please focus on Shelli? Carla Gugino's character hasn't had much to do so far, beyond being Bill's advocate (and his not-so-secret crush). It's early yet, but I can see why Christina Hendricks backed out of playing the part.