For all the Cameron Crowe fans out there sticking with Roadies through thick and thin — and the past two episodes have been worryingly thin — this week is your reward. "The All Night Bus Ride" is a genuinely special hour of television: heartfelt, wise, and more than a little risky. Roughly half of the episode is effectively a Lynyrd Skynyrd biopic, with actor Nathan Sutton playing ill-fated southern-rocker Ronnie Van Zant; if Vinyl taught us anything, it's that treating real-life musical heroes as characters can come off as glib and silly. But Crowe's clearly personal script and director Sam Jones's creative recreations hold everything together, just enough to make magic happen. When "The All Night Bus Ride" is working, it's so mesmerizing that even Roadies' more chronically awful tendencies can't drag it down.
If anything, this episode seems like it was beamed in from an alternate universe, where Crowe and his writers have done more to get the audience genuinely invested in the characters' various love connections and career crossroads. Given how much of an afterthought Wes's story line has been all season, it's a waste of time to spend a few minutes on him telling his sister that he's finally ready to challenge himself. Similarly, if Bill and Shelly's affair hadn't felt telegraphed and tacked-on all season, it'd be more poignant when she suddenly has to leave the tour because her father-in-law has died. And if Roadies had done much of anything with Milo's crush on Kelly Ann (largely unmentioned since the early part of the season), it'd be more meaningful when Gooch urges Milo to declare his feelings before it's too late.
It's also odd to have Donna step in and offer essentially the same advice to Reg — to wake up and realize that he should be with Kelly Ann — given that he has far more important things on his mind. The big plot development in "The All Night Bus Ride" is that the Staton-House Band's financial advisor has crunched the numbers while planning out the European tour, and has realized that there's not enough money for the whole group to play overseas. He further realizes that he was hired in the first place to be the scapegoat for a drastic change that was already in the works: Tom Staton cutting Chris House loose and going solo. This is a far more intriguing turn of events than whether Reg ends up with Kelly Ann, and it's another reminder that Roadies has failed to develop its more compelling and original story lines.
But it's a lot easier to shrug off those questionable narrative choices when the show is clicking. This episode develops a real momentum, thanks in large part to a structure that keeps all the characters in one place. Most of the action takes place on the tour bus, during a marathon drive down the West Coast, from Oregon to a corporate gig in San Diego. The gang sings songs and drinks beer along the way, stopping off in the tourist trap of Weed, California, to buy "I Heart Weed" T-shirts. To pass the time during the long hours, Phil tells a tale about how he became a roadie and why he still preaches the gospel of rock-and-roll.
It still doesn't make much sense that Phil was asked to return to the SHB after getting canned in the first episode for swindling his employers. Nevertheless, it's worth bringing him back to hear his origin story, which involves a chance meeting with Ronnie Van Zant at a Who concert in Atlanta, and a long trip around the world with a band on the rise.
There a few things worth noting about Phil's Lynyrd Skynyrd saga. For one, Crowe himself spent time covering that band as a Rolling Stone reporter, which helps explain why this episode is more richly detailed than a lot of the others have been. There's a specificity to what Crowe has to say about Skynyrd, from the defensiveness about their Southern roots to the intensely paternal leadership of Van Zant himself. Phil is full of anecdotes about bar fights, drug busts, and curing hangovers with hits of pure oxygen provided by an airline pilot. And they're all beautifully shot by Jones, a rock photographer and music-video director perhaps best known for the Wilco documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. Jones uses filters and funky lighting to give the flashbacks their own texture and energy.
There's also something else about Phil's reminiscences, which should immediately resonate with anyone who loved Almost Famous: His story is Crowe's story. The journalist and filmmaker got his start as a youngster, when he wandered idly into the world of rock-and-roll and realized that this was exactly where he most wanted to be. I've yet to be convinced that Roadies has any real commitment to the love stories of Bill and Shelly or Reg and Kelly Ann. But I believed every word of what Phil said about how incredible it felt to go from working in his daddy's bait shop to bonding on a spiritual level with the man who co-wrote "Free Bird."
Crowe and Jones weave Phil's story throughout "The All Night Bus Ride," which helps connect and boost the parts of the episode that don't work as well. And the flashbacks end in a powerful place, with Phil recalling Van Zandt's death and then launching into a long speech (beautifully delivered by Ron White) about how losing Skynyrd meant he lost touch with rock 'n' roll — which was like losing his faith. As the credits roll, the roadies play an acoustic version of "Simple Man." That's powerful stuff. And it's not even the high point of the episode. The strongest section in the entire hour is the recollection of how when Lynyrd Skynyrd opened for the Rolling Stones, they dared to upstage the headliners, taking full advantage of their moment in the spotlight to give an unforgettable, legendary performance.
During Phil's reveries, he talks about how special Skynyrd was live, and expresses his faith that, "On any one day, any band can be the greatest band in the world." I personally believe that to be true. And as this episode of Roadies proves, on any one week, any TV show can be the best thing on the air.
- Phil says that opening for the Rolling Stones is "the toughest gig in rock," which certainly seems to be true, according to all the lore. The most famous case is probably Prince, who was roundly booed when he had that warm-up gig in the early '80s, in the Dirty Mind era. I guess Mick Jagger's fans didn't like seeing their hero get out-sexy-ed.
- Speaking of sex, we got our longest look yet at everyone's cable TV obsession, Dead Sex. Another indicator of how well this episode worked is that even the Dead Sex material comes off as agreeably loopy, not painfully unfunny.
- The music cues for this series have been all over the map, and don't always seem to suit the tone of the show or the genre it's supposed to be celebrating. But it's hard to complain about the chance to hear a pretty old Cocteau Twins song, or Robyn Hitchcock's acoustic version of the Psychedelic Furs' "The Ghost in You."
- As convincing as Phil's love of Lynyrd Skynyrd is, I have to admit that Roadies still hasn't done enough to persuade me that the Staton-House Band is awesome enough to win over someone like him.
- Despite how good this particular episode is, I strongly doubt that Roadies will get a second season. But if there is, this week gave us a hint of what it might entail. Kids, we're all goin' to Europe!