Maybe the glow from last week's excellent episode is still lingering, or maybe Roadies is finally sharpening its focus in the homestretch. That tends to happen with serialized prestige dramas, given that so many of them try to stretch four hours of good material into a dozen. Whatever the reason, "The Corporate Gig" is another modest charmer. Set almost entirely over the course of an evening at a billionaire entrepreneur's birthday party, the episode is comedic without ever turning too silly or broad, and it brings several of the season's major plotlines to fruition in ways that are surprisingly emotional.
Written by Roadies' A-team of Cameron Crowe and Winnie Holzman, and directed by the talented Jon Kasdan (whose painfully true 2012 teen comedy The First Time is worth seeking out), "The Corporate Gig" sees the Staton-House Band performing for an invitation-only San Diego crowd at the behest of loaded rubber heir Jack Peltz, played by Duplass Brothers staple Steve Zissis. Peltz runs FunCo, a company that started out making fake vomit and erasers, but has since branched into bra-enhancers and crowd-control bullets.
Throughout the episode, the band and crew wonders whether they're sacrificing something essential about themselves by taking this rich guy's money. But Crowe, Holzman, and Kasdan don't treat the job as anything that dreadful. Instead, they gently mock the pretentious goofiness of multimillion-dollar private parties, with their costumed cater-waiters, trampolines, water slides, and fussy clipboard-bearing planners (well-played here by Kate Comer).
Against that backdrop, Roadies gets busy being Roadies, moving forward on all the personal crises and relationship dramas that have been the series' stock-in-trade from the beginning — even back when it might've been better for this rock-and-roll show to actually to be about rock-and-roll. Again, it's hard to get too worked up by the important stuff in this episode, like Wes losing his job as Tom Staton's son's nanny, or Rick telling Milo to dump the stalker Natalie for him, or even Shelli returning from her father-in-law's funeral looking so content that Bill hesitates to confess his feelings for her.
On the other hand, for the first time since "The City Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken," Reg and Kelly Ann get to spend a lot of screen time together, and their romantic subplot finally clicks. With Kelly Ann haunted after reading a diary entry from her idealistic 16-year-old self, and Reg stunned by the news that his bosses are about reassign him to a canned-goods concern, both parties are in a shaky place when they find each other, drunk, toward the end of the Peltz party.
Imogen Poots and Rafe Spall do some of their best work of the entire series, as their characters bond over Billy Wilder movies and blurt out their fears and hopes. Their scenes are filled with marvelous moments and lines, from Kelly Ann admitting that she's never had sex sober to Reg suggesting, "We could swim drunkenly in the nude and celebrate the destruction of who we are." Even the way Kasdan catches the San Diego breeze blowing Kelly Ann's hair back is just lovely, evoking both the magic of the evening and the vibe of the city where Crowe grew up.
The two biggest plot developments in "The Corporate Gig" arrive at the end. Chris House is AWOL all episode — to the point where the band finally plays for Peltz as "Most of the Staton-House Band!" — and then he sends a note to Tom announcing that he's done with the tour and the group. In last week's episode, we learned that Tom was planning to disengage anyway. This week, the Staton half of the band maneuvers to steal Shelli away as his personal manager, while also shutting out House loyalist Bill. This major complication will likely play out for good in next week's finale.
Then, in the final minutes of "The Corporate Gig," Phil's life flashes before his eyes as he collapses into a swimming pool. One of the smartest moves Roadies has made down the stretch was bringing Phil back, so it's quite a bold move if this is it for him. Last week's "The All Night Bus Ride" showcased Phil's life story, in what was easily the show's finest hour. This week, he appears only sparingly before he (apparently) dies, but he has one of the episode's key scenes, when Peltz corners him and offers to pay for his best rock anecdotes.
As the two of them walk off together, Phil talks about his favorite song — Lowell George's "Willin'," originally recorded by George's band Little Feat — while Peltz boasts about his collection of memorabilia. This is what's really at the heart of "The Corporate Gig." It's not about making fun of the Peltzes of the world; it's about examining the modern rock-and-roll food chain. Guys like Phil and Bill facilitate the music (or "bring comfort to genius," in Bill's words). People like Staton and House make it. And then, Jack Peltz pays a lot of money for it, just so he can stick it behind glass in a place where only a select few get to go.
That's a poignant theme for a show like Roadies to explore, this idea that authentic musical experiences are now reserved for those who can afford them, and that something as fun and frivolous as a novelty-toy company could develop into an amoral international behemoth. I wish Roadies had been more about these contradictions and artistic compromises all along. But after the past two weeks, I have to admit: I'm eager to see how Crowe and company complete the thought.
- Chris's "Welp, I'm out" note to Tom — ending with the phrase "Long May You Run" — is a direct reference to how Neil Young quit his 1976 tour with Stephen Stills, while they were promoting their album Long May You Run. Young disappeared after nine shows, sending this telegram: "Dear Stephen, funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach. Neil."
- Kelly Ann calling a piña colada a "Pino Palladino" — in reference to the famed session bassist and recent Who member — is one of the nerdiest rockophile moments on this show so far. I kinda loved it.
- When Shelli tells Bill that he's not a Buddhist, I don't know if Crowe or Holzman is directly responsible for his answer ("No, I'm not, but it is my favorite of all the religions"), but it's hard to imagine a line that better represents both writers' comic sensibilities. Or Luke Wilson's screen persona, for that matter.
- At one point in this episode, Reg and Kelly Ann drunkenly sing a verse (or chorus?) of "Janine," which is the most we've heard thus far of the Staton-House Band's most troublesome song. Now we know where the name of the fan-site "The Blue and the Black" comes from: It's a line in "Janine."
- My favorite musical moment in the episode: the use of Daryl Hall's 2011 solo number "Talking to You (Is Like Talking to Myself)" on the soundtrack. It's the first time I've ever heard that song, and it's incredibly catchy — like classic Hall & Oates.
- I'm not sure what to make of the scene where Kelly Ann complains about the changing music business to a handsome young man who shrugs that he's fine with it all — with the exclusive gigs, and the audiences who don't clap because they have cell phones in their hands. On the one hand, this dude isn't as obnoxious as some of Roadies' other representatives of industry crassness. On the other hand, I'm mildly concerned that the only reason he's so nice is so that when he tells Kelly Ann, "You have a beautiful smile, you should use it more," it's to be taken as good advice, and not as one of the most condescending things you can say to a woman.
- Let's give it up for David Spade, who works as the MC at Peltz's party, and gets worried about the yet-to-air finale of his show, Dead Sex, when Bill tells him about the ending that fans would like to see. ("Let's get Aaron Sorkin for day, or that guy who did Hamilton," a panicked Spade later yells into a phone at his co-producers.) In a more tightly controlled show, all the Dead Sex jokes could've been more amusingly meta. Instead they're just kind of bizarre … which is okay, too.