I’ll say this for Roadies: It has a sense of place unlike any other rock-and-roll story in TV or movie history, outside of Cameron Crowe’s own Almost Famous. Crowe and his crew both demystify and behold with awe the very structures that contain their favorite music. In this week’s “Lost Highway” — credited to Crowe and Tom Kapinos, and directed by Jonathan Kaplan — multiple scenes make arenas and concert halls look like cathedrals. This show deals with the unglamorous grind behind the touring industry, but the overall tone has been respectful from the beginning. Roadies continues to benefit from Crowe’s guidance, if only because he’s got a romantic eye and has spent most of his life with a backstage pass around his neck.
So, yeah … the scenery in Roadies looks great. It’s what goes on in front of it that’s the problem.
“Lost Highway” is effectively the second part of last week’s half-great/half-disposable “Friends and Family,” and like its predecessor, it’s split between highs and lows. This time out, the missteps aren’t just innocuously dull. For a good long while, this episode is pleasantly aimless, with a few fun digressions and turns of dialogue that compensate for the plot being stuck in place. On their second day in Denver, the Staton-House Band’s crew is still dealing with the repercussions of day one, with Bill and Shelli wondering if their “supermoon sex” really means anything, and Reg glowing from the evening he spent with Chris House’s lost love, Janine. And then, in one howlingly bad scene, Crowe and Co. trash much of the goodwill they’ve built up.
The scene involves Janine, who’s back for the second Denver show at Reg’s request. Early in the day, Chris invites his business manager to his hotel to ask about Janine, and despite Bill’s warning to say nothing (lest he upset the emotional balance of the band for the rest of the tour), Reg makes the mistake of rhapsodizing about how she smells like “a kind of rose … and childhood … and chocolate.” It’s a beautifully staged sequence, making great use of the low-key comic timing of Rafe Spall — who’s quickly becoming Roadies’ MVP — as well as the gorgeous glass elevators of a Denver luxury hotel, which whisk Reg and Bill up into the sky to meet their privileged, petty boss.
The lousiness comes later, when Janine finally gets backstage to see Chris, and launches into a long rant at her ex-lover, unloading years of pent-up anger over the way he broke her heart and then twisted the experience in his songs — and even worse, the way he’s spread lies about her in the interviews he’s given about his past and his work. That’s a perfectly reasonable reaction, and it’s a strong bit of real conflict for a show that’s otherwise low-stakes. My issue is with how the scene develops, and how it plays out.
It becomes clear right away that the sweet, mature Janine we met last week was just faking her way into Reg’s good graces so she could get backstage for this confrontation. And once she has Chris squirming, she pulls out the big whammy. She’s working on a tell-all book, using all the archival material she accumulated during their relationship (all the scraps of lyrics, notes, photos, and tapes that Reg wants for the Staton-House Band box set, in other words), so that she can get some of the money that she never saw when Chris got famous.
This is some depressingly hateful business — not what Janine does, but the way that she’s written as greedy and duplicitous. It’s especially irritating because there’s no reason why this scene has to go to such extremes. In terms of the overall arc of the season, Janine’s function is to get into Chris House’s head and mess up the tour. She could’ve done that just as easily with a more spontaneous display of anger and bitterness, as opposed to this sneaky, planned-out, over-the-top “gotcha.”
A smaller flare-up — as opposed to a nuclear truth-bomb — would’ve also fit better into this episode’s theme of everyday public embarrassment. While Bill and Shelli sort through feelings of shame over an affair that they won’t be able to keep secret, Kelly Ann spends “Lost Highway” with a ridiculous turkey hat on her head, as punishment for losing her laminated pass. Reg then joins the pity-party when he colossally misjudges the Janine situation, threatening both his job and his fragile acceptance within this rock-and-roll tribe. But wouldn’t he feel even worse if Janine was a normal person with normal hurt feelings, and not a super-villain who set out to fool him and screw over Chris?
This “wearing the turkey hat” motif is unexpectedly effective in what ordinarily would be a not-so-promising subplot, as Wes tries to do something special for Tom Staton’s obnoxious son by arranging a guitar lesson with John Mellencamp. (He’s the musical guest, almost by default.) Mellencamp, who’s done some screen acting before, delivers a powerful monologue about his prized possession: a guitar owned by Woody Guthrie. But then, the boy accidentally spills a smoothie all over the instrument, making Wes look like a dolt in front of a rock legend. He feels like he’s been failing in his mission to teach this kid how to be a person who can get along in the world. Wes has a good line early in the episode when he says that everyone has to take who they are and what they’ve learned into the street. Why? “The street will have an opinion.”
That’s why the terrible Janine scene is so aggravating: It squanders some decent material, like the Wes/Mellencamp meeting. Kelly Ann doesn’t have much to do this week, but there’s still something poignant about her quietly endeavoring to embrace her opportunities (per Shelli’s angry advice in “Friends and Family”), all while wearing a turkey on her head. Bill and Shelli’s post-coital awkwardness is fairly standard-issue for TV dramedy, but Bill has a perfectly Cameron Crowe moment when he walks up to Shelli and insists that he’ll respect her decision about continuing or discontinuing the affair, saying, “I want to make your life easier, not harder.” And episode-by-episode, Roadies seems to be building up to a grand statement about how complacency is the enemy of art, and how rock-and-roll demands discomfort.
But somewhere during the writing and production of this series, it seems either Crowe or Showtime (or both) decided that subtlety wouldn’t get the job done. Bill stands up at the morning meeting to tell real rock-and-roll stories, like the tale of lackeys turned impresarios David Geffen and Danny Sugerman. Yet, so far, this show has featured an outer-space Taylor Swift tour, an evil all-powerful critic, a mercurial super-stalker, and a spurned lover who springs a cruelly vindictive trap. These clichés and cartoons just keep popping up, blocking the parts of Roadies that might otherwise show us something unique.
- One of the highlights of the episode comes when comedian Marc Maron shows up as SHB bassist Rick’s “sober companion,” then faux-graciously offers to serve as the band’s latest opening act. (Reg thought he had booked Jack White, when he’d actually reached out to Jack Black, who then changed his mind about performing, and … look, it’s all too stupid to even try to explain, given that all of these machinations involve what is supposed to be a major-arena tour.) Anyway, Maron kills onstage, but as Shelli predicted, he throws off the energy of the crowd, ultimately sabotaging the actual Staton-House Band concert. Comedians do open for rock bands sometimes, but it’s not as common as it used to be — at least not since the days when Albert Brooks disastrously opened for Richie Havens in San Antonio.
- Tom Staton exists! We got our first extended scenes with the other half of the SHB this week, as Donna is required to have a “personal hang day” with Tom (played by Catero Alain Colbert). He seems like a gentle, spiritual dude. Can we get some scenes exploring his history and relationship with Chris House?
- This episode is bookended by an admittedly lovely image of a waif with glowing hoops, who’s looking for some Staton-House band member or hanger-on to seduce. But in a week where a previously nuanced female character is exposed as merely manipulative and vengeful, the reduction of another woman to “ethereal erotic delight” doesn’t sit so well.
- This week, Showtime announced upcoming Roadies guest stars, including Rosanna Arquette as “a smug and intimidating iconic rock photographer who battles with Shelli.” God give us strength.