It’s fair to assume that every time Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson told the story of how André the Giant, a colleague of his pro-wrestler father, took him to see E.T., somebody said, “Wow, your life would make a great TV show.”
Young Rock is that TV show. Debuting tonight on NBC, it’s a sitcom made in the spirit of The Wonder Years, or more aptly, Fresh Off the Boat, considering that Nahnatchka Khan, who created that ABC series, co-created this one with Johnson. In each episode, the Rock as an adult recalls an important moment from his youth, which viewers get to witness via extended flashbacks. Johnson’s younger days are divided into three categories: his time as a 10-year-old in the early ’80s; his high-school experience in the late ’80s, when he was so mature for his age that school administrators assumed he was a grown man and, possibly, a narc; and his time at the University of Miami in the early ’90s, where he played on the football team that won a national championship. As basic math may already have implied, four actors play the role of Dwayne Johnson: Adrian Groulx plays him at 10, Bradley Constant at 15, Uli Latukefu from the ages of 18 to 20, and the Rock himself as an adult. Because why make a show about the Rock if you can’t at least partially cast the charming wrestler turned movie star as himself?
Actually, as charming as Johnson is, the portions of the show that focus on him as a grown-up are the weakest part of what is an otherwise sweet and appealing family comedy. The pretext for all the looking backward is that Johnson, in 2032, is running for president and sharing pieces of his life story from the campaign trail, via interviews with Randall Park, who notes pointedly that he has become a broadcast journalist and is no longer an actor. While it’s a cheeky nod to Johnson’s own interest in presidential politics, the scripting of those scenes comes across as forced and a tad awkward.
Once Young Rock spins the hands of time backward, the show gets much more fun thanks to Johnson’s unusual yet somehow still relatable upbringing and a cast filled with instantly likable actors. For those who don’t know Johnson’s backstory and haven’t followed his, uh, future, fictional presidential campaign, he was raised by his well-known wrestler father, Rocky Johnson (Joseph Lee Anderson), and hardworking mother, Ata (Stacey Leilua), who stays focused on getting the bills paid once Rocky’s gigs in the ring become less lucrative. The family moved frequently — among other places, they lived in Hawaii, Nashville, and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania — and in Johnson’s younger years, when his dad was still a name-brand wrestler and his grandmother Lia (Ana Tuisila) worked as a wrestling promoter, young Dwayne, then nicknamed Dewey, was regularly surrounded by legends of the WWF’s golden era. Anyone who was a wrestling fan in the early ’80s may love this show solely for its interest in conjuring that period and its characters. Junkyard Dog, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, the aforementioned André the Giant, and the Wild Samoans, members of the Rock’s large extended family of power slammers, are among the many showmen represented.
While the absurdity of wrestling is on full display in the series — the pilot explains the importance of having a gimmick within that world — it is also treated with the reverence one would expect from someone nurtured within its ecosystem. When young Dewey, in a room surrounded by WWF fighters, suggests that wrestling is fake, he is lifted off the ground and firmly chastised by André the Giant (a convincing Matthew Willig), who tells him never to use the F-word.
Khan and Johnson find a balance between being honest about the family’s hardships and avoiding overly dark territory. Especially during Johnson’s teen years, money is so tight that Ata considers the purchase of a small carton of half-and-half a splurge. Johnson admits that he also used to steal clothes so that his classmates would think his family was wealthy. As much of a gas as it was to grow up in this unpredictable environment, it clearly also bred insecurity and anxiety, something Young Rock tells us, via the older Johnson’s insights, more than it starkly shows us, at least in the three episodes provided to critics in advance of the premiere.
While all three of the actors who play Johnson in the ’80s and ’90s have natural screen presence, it’s Anderson and Leilua whose performances register most strongly, in part because they appear most consistently in the time jumps. Rocky Johnson is overconfident and prone to ego inflation, but Anderson plays him with such smooth affability that it’s easy to understand why people tend to cut him so much slack. One ear-to-ear grin from that guy makes you want to believe what he’s selling, even if your instincts tell you loud and clear that he’s exaggerating. Leilua, a New Zealand–based actress who has landed her first major American credit here, infuses Ata with just as much charisma as her husband, which makes her role as supporting performer in their marriage a minor-key tragedy. She radiates so much natural warmth that your eyes are drawn to her in every scene.
Young Rock hits some off notes here and there. For one, it strains a bit too hard to draw digestible lessons out of Johnson’s experiences. It is best when it displays how the bizarre and the magical often co-existed in the star’s wondrous, bumpy childhood. That’s what happens in episode six when, yes, André the Giant really does take 10-year-old Johnson to see E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, a movie the kid is dying to experience. “He eats candy and uses the telephone. I have to see it!” he declares. When both of his parents are occupied, André steps in to spend the day with Dewey.
The image of the two of them in a theater — a small boy next to a giant who obscures the eyeline of every audience member behind him, each one craning their necks in an attempt to get even a partial view of a heartlight — is freakish, absurd, and touching. That’s the emotional trifecta Young Rock is aiming for, and it seems to have the potential to hit it more often than miss.