Remember back in episode one when Cameron Crowe nearly undercut everything that was promising about Roadies in one strange, inexplicable scene of a groupie stalker fellating a vintage microphone? Well, this week’s “The Bryce Newman Letter” is like that scene stretched out to an hour. It’s not just because Crowe brings the creepy Natalie back, and once again uses the character’s psychological disorder for both comic relief and cheap titillation. No, the real problem with this episode is that its entire premise is the kind of spectacularly bad idea that someone in the writers’ room should’ve squelched before it even got to the page, let alone the screen.
I have to tread somewhat lightly here, because the titular Bryce Newman is a rock critic (played by Rainn Wilson), and sometimes when critics complain about how their profession is portrayed in movies and TV shows, there’s a presumption of hurt feelings. That’s definitely not the case here. Trust me, I’ve known a few self-important, mean-spirited critics in real life, and I’d enjoy a good takedown of them as much as Crowe would enjoy writing and directing one. But this is not a good takedown. It’s lazy, clichéd, and — worst of all — painfully unfunny.
The plot alone is ridiculous. We’re asked to believe that the Staton-House Band and its network of assistants and managers are in crisis because an influential blogger has written a scathing review that called the group “relentlessly irrelevant.” Leaving aside the idea that there is such a thing as a “an influential blogger” in 2016 — let alone one well-read and well-respected enough that he could hurt a big-time arena tour — the way Bryce Newman is conceived and played is depressingly cartoonish. He cackles to himself as he writes his pan. His criticisms are vague. He’s rude to everyone he meets. He bullies people into giving him free stuff. He’s a larger-than-life monster who slaughters sacred cows (he calls Tom Waits “Billy Joel with bronchitis”) and seems to have no baseline for “great” to justify his disgust with the mediocre.
It’s almost like Crowe originally meant the character as a joke — as a tongue-in-cheek straw man of everyone who’s ever written anything negative about him — but then made the mistake of taking the whole idea of a “Bryce Newman” seriously. Rather than having him be a minor figure who fills out the episode’s B-plot or C-plot, nearly the entirety of “The Bryce Newman Letter” is about the Staton-House crew’s desperate attempt to win him over at their Atlanta tour stop. In a tired bit of farce, the critic’s head is turned around when Natalie and Wes conspire to tease him, abuse him, and get him dangerously high. Post-dosing, the second half of this Roadies serves up one groaner scene after another, from Newman hallucinating a conversation with a plastic cactus whom he believes to be Apple CEO Tim Cook, to a naked Newman climbing onto the stage to confess to the band’s fans that he’s a calculating fraud who secretly loves “dad rock.”
The rest of this week’s installment is nowhere near as bad, though very little about it is good enough to mitigate the awfulness of the Bryce Newman material. Bill returns to the cradle-robbing ways of the pilot, spending his time in Atlanta in and out of bed with a young woman, Cassie, who calls him “Mr. Once-a-Year.” There’s barely anything to the story line, aside from one awkward scene where Bill and Cassie break up via text-message emojis, but that doesn’t stop Crowe from having the climax of the episode be a moment where the Staton-House tour bus pulls into a residential neighborhood so our hero can make a big romantic gesture.
Elsewhere, Shelli struggles to find a peaceful few minutes to have phone sex with her husband, which is a subplot mainly designed to keep forcing the idea that Bill and Shelli should end up together. And Kelly-Ann continues to stress out about whether her cohorts like her, since she’s convinced that her influence with Chris House is going to get her fired. Given that this tour is apparently down to just three roadies, she really shouldn’t be that anxious. (Speaking of, here’s how obviously slashed the Roadies budget has become since the pilot: At one point, Bill talks to Luis Guzman’s character, Gooch, who’s kept silent and out of frame so the show doesn’t actually have to bring the actor in.)
The best part of “The Bryce Newman Letter” is this week’s special-guest opening act, Lindsey Buckingham, who has a couple of beautiful solo acoustic performances. Buckingham and Bill share a real rapport, and as they catch up on old times, we get to hear a little about the latter’s recovery from substance-abuse problems. It’s a warm, human moment, much more grounded in truth than anything else.
That’s what makes the whole Newman business more annoying: It doesn’t seem anywhere near as developed as the few minutes we spend with Lindsey Buckingham. In the end, the critic writes a reversal of his pan for reasons that don’t really make sense, given that he’s just been humiliated in front of an arena full of people and their video-capturing cell phones. That’s a dopey, predictable way to end a story like this. But it becomes obvious early on that Crowe has no intention of staying in the real world, from the moment Newman says that he’s planning to leave the concert shortly after nine o’clock for his 9:50 p.m. flight. That’s not how airplane travel works in 2016, Roadies. And that’s not how rock criticism works, either.
- As someone who was born in Atlanta and went to college in nearby Athens, I was curious to see how Crowe would treat my homeland — even though, to be honest, I haven’t spent much time there myself over the past 20 years. I’m not sure Crowe knows modern Atlanta all that well, either. I appreciated the subtle nod of the roadies tuning up the band’s instruments by playing a heavy cover of Atlanta Rhythm Section’s “So Into You,” and I dug Bill’s mention of Lynyrd Skynyrd recording their classic live version of “Free Bird” at the Fox Theatre (a show Crowe attended and wrote about in the liner notes to their live album, One More From the Road). Otherwise, this episode is pretty non-Atlanta-specific, aside from Shelli’s joke that it’s hard to find a good pastrami sandwich in the city — something that’s likely untrue, given that Atlanta’s become a foodie mecca.
- In a weird coincidence, just one week before Roadies introduced the world to the horrors of Bryce Newman, TV Land’s The Jim Gaffigan Show aired an episode about a critic/blogger getting into an artist’s head. But “The List” is much sharper than “The Bryce Newman Letter.” For one thing, it subverts some of the clichés about the profession, in that the critic is a young woman who has a day job and genuinely loves what she writes about (as opposed to being a bearded, middle-aged crank who’s well-compensated and inexplicably respected). Even when The Jim Gaffigan Show spoofs the pretensions of young hipsters, it’s not malicious. As Gaffigan tries to make himself cooler to meet the demands of the “alt-comedy” crowd, the episode offers some actual insider’s perspective on what it’s like for a comic to be judged by people who haven’t lived long enough to understand his jokes. Crowe, who’s been both a critic and a target of criticism, could probably articulate both sides of that relationship well. Vexingly, he chooses not to.