In the context of this Roadies season as a whole, “Friends and Family” should be a big deal. Bill and Shelli finally have sex. Kelly Ann’s potential romance with Reg hits a roadblock when he falls for somebody else. “Rick the bass player” continues to make a drunken ass of himself, with the help of his new lover, the dangerous stalker Natalie.
But one of the major downsides to this age of serialized TV drama is that writers often seem to convince themselves that the longer story matters more than what happens in any given week. Or, to put it another way: What if those of us who’ve been watching Roadies for the past five weeks still don’t care who Bill, Shelli, Kelly Ann, Reg, Rick, or Natalie hook up with?
Because let me tell you, if episode writer David Rosen and director Allison Liddi-Brown had ditched everything having to do with romance, “Friends and Family” would’ve been a lovely hour of television, thematically unified, with something profound to say about how we sort through the accumulated scraps of our past. What could’ve been an outstanding standalone episode gets weighed down by all the clunky little recurring subplots.
At its best, “Friends and Family” is about three new characters, so let’s go through them one by one.
1. Janine Beckwith
Technically, Janine has been a presence in the show since episode one, when Christopher House was inspired by Kelly Ann to put the song he wrote for his ex-girlfriend back into his setlist — setting in motion a series of mishaps in the weeks to come. But when the Staton-House Band reaches their hometown of Denver, the real-life, Boulder-based Janine (played by singer-songwriter Joy Williams) actually comes to the show, where she’s greeted by Reg. The band’s business manager has two assignments: Keep this scorned, possibly unstable woman from getting backstage and upsetting Chris; and see if she saved anything that he could include in the cash-grab box set he’s planning.
But then Reg finds himself smitten by Janine. She takes care of rescue horses out in the country, and has a poise and maturity about her that’s totally unlike the passionate girl from Chris’s old songs. Reg is fascinated by how she’s changed, and what it’s been like for her to be a famous muse. As he asks her to return for the band’s second night in Denver, it’s like he’s discovering an actual connection to the music he’s spent months merely trying to sell.
2. Mike Finger
Reg also invites the man behind the Staton-House Band’s fan site to come to Denver to help with the box set. Mike Finger (Ely Henry) brings an entirely different energy to the arena than the hateful critic Bryce Newman did a few episodes ago — or that Natalie brings every time she shows up. Mike’s an SHB obsessive, but he’s never creepy. He insists that he doesn’t want to meet any of the band members in person, because he’d rather they only exist as a myth in his imagination. And when Kelly Ann gripes about the crush of friends and family grabbing gift bags and free food backstage, Mike tells her the stories of who all these people are, and how they contributed to the group’s success. If Janine represents the mundane reality behind the art, Mike’s there to restore the legend.
3. Lorraine Navarro
Lorraine (Christina Moses) is Bill’s ex-girlfriend, who kicked him out during his hard-drinking days, and whose house he visits to retrieve a vintage Gram Parsons “Nudie Suit” jacket for Chris. Lorraine doesn’t do much in this episode, beyond telling Bill that she’s forgiven him, but she doesn’t want him back in her life. And yet, his trip back to his past — via the time he spends looking through his old things in Lorraine’s garage — really ties these stories together. While listening to a bootleg tape of Bruce Springsteen singing a live version of “Radio Nowhere,” Bill slips and falls to the ground (much like Reg does in the Denver airport while picking up Mike). He lies there for a bit, surrounded by old flyers and his buddy’s lucky red Solo cup, thinking about the person he used to be. He doesn’t want to let go of his past, even though he struggles not to lapse back into being an unreliable drunk.
Also, the clarity Bill finds after making overdue amends to Lorraine might be what allows him to accept Shelli’s seduction at the end of the day. Or maybe they both can blame the altitude in Denver, or the “super-moon” outside — which Shelli insists is mystically and gravitationally inclined to make everyone act more honestly.
Again, it’s not important to know why Bill and Shelli get it on. It only matters because “Friends and Family” wastes so much time on this creaky old will-they-won’t-they routine. Like Natalie’s backstage-pass-aided sense of entitlement, Rick’s gross substance abuse and the constant teasing Kelly Ann suffers for her half-hearted flirtation with Reg, the Bill/Shelli buildup just feels like wheel-spinning. These are unnecessarily truncated excerpts of a predictable story, which hasn’t played out in full only because there are five more episodes to fill.
Those scenes aren’t what makes Roadies go. The real reason to watch “Friends and Family” is to see Bill leading the morning rally with a long reverie about Led Zeppelin’s earliest American gigs. The scene keeps cutting back to Shelli to show how Bill’s passion for rock history turns her on, and that’s fine. But what really resonates is how this man — like the crew he manages — keeps earnestly looking back, trying to understand the path that brought him where he is right now.
- Another good musical guest this week is Lucius, a genre-bending indie band with a striking look. This is the second opening act that I didn’t know much about before they appeared on the show. If nothing else, thanks to Roadies for giving me some new music to check out.
- I’m starting to dig this whole “box set” subplot. Physical media is dying, except for when it comes to expensive, exclusive, fan-only objects. So are these collectors’ items fan friendly, or fan-exploiting? I’d rather hear more about that than anything to do with romance.
- This week, we get a longer look at Dead Sex, the erotic zombie thriller (and David Spade vehicle) that’s been captivating everybody on the various tour buses. I hope this becomes the Roadies equivalent to The Good Wife’s fake prestige cable drama Darkness at Noon.
- This episode represents the most sustained effort yet to do more with Shelli — even more than last week, when her hunt for Rick turned into her mostly becoming Bill’s sidekick. But aside from one good scene where Shelli blows up at Kelly Ann for being mopey and standoffish, there’s still not enough going on with this character. As I’ve written before, this is in no way the fault of Carla Gugino, who’s doing strong work with very little material. Even in a week where Shelli gets featured, her main business is to be so sexually frustrated that she can’t think straight. What we mainly know about Shelli so far is that she misses her absent husband and she sees her old friend Bill as a decent substitute. Oh, and her job seems to be receiving and transmitting messages via walkie-talkie. Compare that to all the bits of backstory and character-defining moments that Bill, Kelly Ann, and Reg have gotten, not to mention their varied adventures. Maybe that’s why Roadies’ central love story is so dull.