Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll is superficial title for a superficial show. Created by Denis Leary, this half-hour FX comedy, which premieres tonight, follows Johnny Rock (Leary), the lead singer of the Heathens. The band apparently flamed out in the ‘90s — or was it the ‘80s, or the ‘70s? It’s often hard to tell — when they were right on the cusp of stardom. In the present, Johnny learns that he has an adult daughter, Gigi (Elizabeth Gilles), by a former bandmate, and that Gigi can really, really sing; this inspires him to try to get the band back together to write some new material and finally claim the megastardom that he believes was their destiny. So he reassembles Flash (John Corbett), bassist Rehab (John Ales), drummer Bam Bam (Robert Kelly), and one of his old backup singers Ava (Elaine Hendrix), who happens to be his girlfriend of 25 years, and we’re off.
The show could be described as the third panel in the actor-writer’s self-destructive machismo triptych, alongside The Job, in which he played a police officer, and Rescue Me, where he played a firefighter, but that would suggest that Sex&Drugs is as consistently excellent as The Job or as fitfully interesting as Rescue Me. It’s not. In fact, it’s the first heavily hyped new series of the year that could be described a total misfire.
There are a couple of big problems here, and lots of smaller ones. For starters, Leary’s Johnny is the most generic and poorly defined major character, after his daughter, whom we’ll deal with shortly. He’s mainly a collection of familiar Leary postures and attitudes. From his long leather jackets to his mussed-up hair to his still-prodigious consumption of booze and drugs and his poor-taste wisecracks (he says that John Lennon’s music was so boring after he got sober that if Mark David Chapman hadn’t shot him, “Yoko probably would’ve”), the character is a ridiculous and ultimately grating figure. He could be a middle-school-age suburban Generation-Xer’s fantasy of a crazy white rocker — probably one imagined in the 1970s, when the gods of ‘60s rock were filling up arenas and inspiring boys with chocolate-milk mustaches to doodle band logos on their binders. Johnny’s life is shabby and pathetic. He looks like shit, and other characters tell him so. And he’s still a major cokehead and boozer. He can’t get through a day, seemingly an hour, without doing something.
But what are we to make of him? Saying that the series expects us to make up our own minds about Johnny would be giving Sex&Drugs too much credit. Simply put, this is a series that wants to have its coke and snort it, too, and it’s not the first Leary series to have that problem. Even at its boldest and most pleasingly absurd, Leary’s work as a writer-producer has always had a childish element of macho fantasy. He’s always playing the loudmouthed satyr who screws up everyone else’s happiness but is so talented and interesting that you can’t help but like him, and the shows seesaw between seeing through the characters’ fantasies and validating them.
Sex&Drugs is very much a Leary show in that way. There are constant wisecracks about what a failure he is, how leathery his face is, how weak most of his songs are, and so on, but he’s still the center of attention, the leader, the schemer, the troublemaker, the man in the spotlight. We just have to take the show’s word for it that Johnny deserves to be the main character, just as we have to take the show’s word for it when Johnny or some other character performs a song that’s supposed to be great or good or merely promising, because all of the songs sound like something a pretty good bar band might do when they weren’t covering other people’s material. Not only can Leary not sing, he can’t really do a rock ‘n’ roll growl or shout or talk-sing, either. This would be fine if the show were about a small-town guy who never left his small town, but we’re supposed to believe that a band fronted by Johnny was on the edge of something great back in the day, and there’s just no credible evidence for that onscreen.
The other major problem is Gigi, who makes no psychological sense as a woman specifically or as a character generally. (Again, a frequent problem with women in Leary productions, although Callie Thorne’s Sheila Keefe on Rescue Me had her moments.) Gigi’s dad has been out of her life for 20 years, and the minute she meets him she’s talking like a ball-busting female Denis Leary, in rants that go on for half a page with no periods (except maybe for the ones that make her even crankier, eh, fellas?). She leaves her Ohio town and shows up in New York to tell her dad (who at first tries to pick her up in a club) that her mom gave her $200,000 and that she needs Johnny and Flash to patch up their differences (Johnny once slept with Flash’s girl) and write her some songs so that she can record them and become a star. “Maybe Mom was wrong about you,” she teases her dad. “She said you were a lazy, selfish, pothead alcoholic with a small dick and a death wish.” Then says, “You should not only feel guilty for never knowing me, you should feel really, really guilty about me growing up without a father figure in friggin’ A-Hole, Ohio, so leave your feelings out of this. I don’t need a dad, I need a goddamn songwriter.” The problem with this dialogue isn’t “nobody talks like this,” it’s that calling it dialogue would be an overstatement. It’s a list of motivations and feelings, and there’s plenty more like it in Sex&Drugs.
The show has a few bright moments here and there, mainly when the bandmates are breaking each others’ chops or just bantering (again, this is very Leary; the best scenes in The Job and Rescue Me took place, respectively, at the station house and the firehouse). And there are some sharp details, like the way that Flash has capitalized on his gun-for-hire gig as Lady Gaga’s guitar player by starting a Twitter account, @gagaleadguitar, that now has a six-figure following. But the net effect is still that of an advertisement for Denis Leary, Great American Antihero, which has just enough self-awareness to realize that advertisements are off-putting, and which therefore puts the character down before raising him up again. Even if you were fine with all that, the pathological sexual jealousy that animates every other scene between Gigi and Johnny in the early episodes might prove a deal-breaker. It’s queasily funny at first (Johnny is a womanizer, but hypocritically puritan when it comes to his own kid) but soon it becomes tiresome, then puzzling, then finally just gross. What middle-aged man is this obsessed with the chastity of his daughter, let alone one he didn’t know existed until recently?