Okay, that’s better. After last week’s mean-spirited fiasco of an episode, Roadies comes back with something much gentler and sweeter. “The City Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken” is both offbeat and fundamentally enjoyable in ways that suggest this show might be special enough to compensate for its many bum notes. Though Roadies still hasn’t reached a “must-see” level, it’s light and likable — and that alone should encourage those watching to stay tuned.
If nothing else, episode writer Hannah Friedman and director Jeffrey Reiner (who previously helmed episodes of Friday Night Lights, Caprica, and The Affair) find a clever way to switch up setting and personnel without busting Showtime’s budget. Almost all of “The City Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken” is set on the crew’s bus, as they drive around Kentucky on an off day for the Staton-House Band tour. After arriving in Louisville, everyone makes plans to rest up in a fancy hotel, eat good meals, spend time with friends and lovers, and see the sights. But then Reg steps onto the bus uninvited and makes the mistake of mentioning “Cincinnati,” which in the world of big-concert tours (at least according to Roadies) is tantamount to saying “Macbeth” backstage at a theater. The only way to break the Cincinnati “curse” is to go through a ritual that requires everyone on the bus to take a 100-mile trip into the wilderness.
What’s so dangerous about Cincinnati? It takes awhile for someone to explain it to Reg outright, but anyone familiar with the history of rock and roll should be able to figure out fairly quickly what the roadies’ mention of the city, the Who, and 1979 all mean. It’s all in reference to the tragedy at Riverfront Coliseum, where thousands of fans attempted to rush through the doors to get the best of the show’s general admission “festival seating.” Eleven people were trampled to death. It was a grim moment for the rock-concert industry, and one that demands proper reverence.
So, thanks to Reg’s ignorance of rock-tour etiquette, a half-dozen folks have to take an all-day road trip. But they also get to spend a few hours just talking with each other in an easygoing way that’s closer to the “hangout show” that one would expect from a Cameron Crowe–led production. Last week, I complained about how Luis Guzmán’s character Gooch was often offscreen, but if Crowe and Showtime can only afford to pay Guzmán every now and then, I’m glad they saved him for this episode. His muted cool helps set the tone for the whole ensemble. (Also onboard: Finesse Mitchell’s character, Harvey, who’s barely had much to do in the series, but has a pleasant presence.)
The two-thirds of “The City Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken” about the bus trip is so nice that it’s too bad Roadies didn’t go all in with it. This could’ve easily been a bottle episode of sorts, following one group of characters in (more or less) one location. But instead, a fairly blah subplot keeps popping up, involving the Staton-House Band’s alcoholic bass player disappearing on a bender. Bill and Shelli go looking for him, stopping at all the places Bill used to go to in Kentucky when he was drinking. They eventually find their man in the backroom of a strip club, where he’s sleeping with the still-annoying stalker Natalie, living out a scenario suggested by the lyrics to the band’s fan-favorite ballad “Janeane.”
The B-story here is meant to illustrate two things: how Kelly-Ann’s complaint about the tour’s setlist continues to wreak havoc; and how Bill and Shelli belong together. But while Luke Wilson and Carla Gugino are doing fine work as would-be romantic leads, this will-they-won’t-they routine still feels forced. Their cross-state odyssey doesn’t really change much in that regard.
The similar “why aren’t they smooching yet?” dynamic between Kelly-Ann and Reg is just as artificial, but at least Imogen Poots and Rafe Spall have have an unusual chemistry — as seen this week when they go hunting for eggs out in the country to complete the curse-breaking ritual. They eventually steal a dozen (minus one) from a farmhouse’s refrigerator, and as they run off down a backroad, Reiner rapidly pulls the camera back in front of them, catching the dappled sunlight and the rush of movement. The moment is genuinely beautiful and romantic. Meanwhile, Bill and Shelli’s storyline can only manage a scene near a strip club’s stomach-turning brunch buffet.
During Reg and Kelly-Ann’s sequence, they talk about whether either of them really believes in curses, or any of the other rock-tour juju. Reg says that he’s willing to go along with it all not just because he wants to fit in, but because he thinks people’s behavior can be affected by their beliefs. This idea is the core of “The City Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken.” Kelly-Ann wants to buy into all the legends and codes, and even volunteers to video-chat with Phil — who’s in outer space with Taylor Swift — to get the exact recipe to break the Cincinnati curse. (“Cool your jets, someone’s cursed on Earth,” Phil grunts at someone out of frame.) But she also favors free will and independence. When the roadies follow through on the plan to release 11 balloons and crush 11 eggs, one of those eggs is secretly left unbroken, which could be read as Kelly-Ann tempting fate or striking a quiet blow against conformity.
Either way, it matters that the rest of the crew doesn’t know about the intact egg. Ultimately, this episode favors the illusion of unanimity and tradition, as Gooch defends in a speech where he insists that all these strange rituals are “not aimless.” The roadies take the Who concert disaster so personally because they believe in the communal power of a live performance, and they think of themselves as stewards of that experience, tasked to make it as seamless as possible. Any disruption has to be addressed, even if it’s not ultimately their fault.
From the start, Roadies promised to take viewers inside that mentality, and deep into the culture it’s spawned. This week, it started living up to that promise.
- Even though Reg’s mention of Cincinnati proves calamitous, his reasons for bringing the city up are sound. Two weeks ago, I griped that it seemed unrealistic for the Staton-House Band tour to take so long to get from New Orleans to Little Rock to Memphis. This time around, Reg complains to Gooch about the circuitousness of his routes, wondering why they’re skipping viable cities along the way.
- There’s a refreshing earthiness to this episode, which begins with the ladies backstage comparing how badly they reek, and later features a scene where Reg is told to defecate into a trash bag because the septic system on the bus can’t handle solid waste. (“Gonna have to hot-bag it,” Gooch shrugs.) There’s a purpose to all this gaminess. It’s a way of reminding the audience that these people don’t really clock out at the end of the day and go home. They’re in close proximity pretty much around the clock, sharing intimate and disgusting moments alike.
- I also loved how the creative team snuck in a special musical guest even without a concert to showcase him: My Morning Jacket front man Jim James — who previously appeared in Crowe’s Elizabethtown — is just hanging out on the bus without explanation. (While watching the episode, I was just about to say to my wife, “I think that’s Jim James,” before Kelly-Ann confirmed it.) He later performs a beautiful acoustic version of a fairly obscure Who ballad, “They Are All in Love,” which becomes this week’s “Song of the Day.”
- Before the song, James helps tell the story of the Who concert that went so terribly awry in ’79. “The City Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken” is now officially the second-best TV episode ever made about this incident — edged out by WKRP in Cincinnati’s classic “In Concert,” which will never be topped.