In the 1990s, Denis Leary was one of a wave of stand-ups working on what could be called “the comedy of complaint,” packing angry spiels about the state of the culture into high-energy routines, full of yelling and eye-rolling. Unlike the more benign observational comics—who struck a tone akin to a sardonic whine—comedians like Leary, Bill Hicks, and Lewis Black joked from a place of righteous fury, railing against idiocy and mediocrity.
In order to be righteous, though, a person has to be right. That may be why Leary spends so much time in his new FX sitcom Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll establishing his bona fides. Because this is a show about a stubbornly idealistic old rocker, a lot of the jokes are about musicians—and not always the most famous ones. For every line about David Bowie or Jon Bon Jovi, there’s one about The Clash’s bassist Paul Simonon, or The Pogues’ incomprehensible frontman Shane MacGowan. Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is as comfortable making a reference to the Slicing Up Eyeballs blog as it is mentioning Rolling Stone—and even when it brings up the latter, it’s only to note ruefully that the magazine gave Bob Geldof’s daughter Peaches a full-page obituary.
Leary created Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll and is the credited writer on each of the five episodes that FX sent to critics. He also stars as Johnny Rock, a “next big thing” who never quite made it, because his selfishness and self-destructive behavior broke up his band The Heathens on the day that their debut album was released. In the years since, Johnny’s been coasting on his cult status, and his reputation as one of the last unrepentant bad boys, while the rest of The Heathens have cleaned up their acts a little. Most galling to Johnny, the band’s studly lead guitarist Flash (John Corbett) has been raking in cash as an in-demand studio/touring musician, especially for Lady Gaga. (He has hundreds of thousands of followers for his Twitter account, @GagaLeadGuitar.)
The show’s overarching plot kicks into gear at the end of the first episode, when Johnny and his former Heathens decide to attempt a comeback as the songwriters, mentors, and backing band for Johnny’s ambitious daughter Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies). That’s a strong sitcom premise, setting up generational conflict: between a man who was already an anachronism when he tried and failed to become a star at the end of the 1980s, and a young woman who’s grown up in a world of social-media and brand-building.
But as hip as Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll can be about 20th century rock ’n’ roll—including frequent name-dropping of Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli, who helped with the show’s original music—its take on contemporary pop and the mechanics of 21st century celebrity feels less first-hand. There’s a lot of generalized contempt in Leary’s stabs at young people who’ve never heard of Paul Newman, ex-party-animals who now pound down vitamin supplements and gluten-free tater tots, an entertainment media that hypes up a club DJ because he’s related to the Kardashians, and pretentious indie and art-rock bands whose songs make Johnny “feel like I’m failing the SATs all over again.” Some of these jokes are funny, and a lot of them have the ring of truth, but they’re not as well-informed as the bits about the old-fashioned, kickass rock lifestyle. Too much of Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is like the shoot-first-apologize-later Leary, the one who outraged parents of autistic children everywhere when he said that they were just hunting for a diagnosis to explain why their kids are “just stupid or lazy or both.”
The tone of the comedy in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is also inconsistent—especially after the first episode, which paints the series as far wackier than it turns out to be. (The pilot plays like an hour-long show crudely cut in half: more crammed with gags, plot, and characters than what comes after.) Sometimes the jokes are rooted in realistic band arguments, like one about whether rockers need drugs to be awesome; and at other times Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is more absurd, set in a world where Johnny’s manager also handles a monkey who makes balloon animals. There’s a lot of trial and error in the early going, and while some of the material does work fairly well, very little is inspired. It lacks urgency.
The biggest problem is that beyond the incident-heavy pilot, the stories for the four subsequent episodes are all fairly thin. In one, Gigi tries to get Johnny to write a song for her while he’s not drunk or high. In another, Johnny pretends to be dead to boost his carer. In episode four, a surge of popularity in Belgium leads to a tour with an extravagant rider; and in the fifth (and worst) episode, Griffin Dunne guest stars as a therapist who talks the group through their massive dysfunction. In the absence of any real fevered lunacy, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll settles for a lot of broad comic situations, building off Johnny’s inability to function as a normal person.
And yet the series has a certain scrappy charm, which is just as attributable to Leary as its faults. Leary has been criticized throughout his career for doing an act that’s derivative of some of his peers, and for spouting ill-considered nonsense in the name of “edginess” and “honesty.” But he’s also put a lot on the line as a creator, bringing his personality and creativity to bear on shows like The Job and Rescue Me. If nothing else, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is distinctively a Leary production, and that’s all too rare in television, for a sitcom to have that kind of auteur stamp. The series is reminiscent of a lot of things—in particular the movies Hard Core Logo and Danny Collins—but it mostly reflects the passions of its maker.
Whatever the limitations of Leary’s “angry man” stand-up persona, as a writer and actor he’s shown more perspective and nuance, and that’s true even in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’s sneering take on the values and habits of millennials. It helps that Leary’s savvy enough to filter his meanest, most reactionary commentary through the mouth of Johnny, an unreliable slob and possible drug addict. That gives the audience some leeway to disagree with the character’s contention that David Bowie hasn’t done anything worthwhile since he kicked cocaine in 1978 (what, not even Lodger?), or that by the end John Lennon’s music had gotten so boring that if Mark David Chapman hadn’t shot him, Yoko Ono would’ve. Johnny Rock may be proud to be an opinionated asshole, but the man who created him is a little more philosophical about it, understanding deeply how much Johnny’s rage stems from insecurity, embarrassment, and the fear that he expresses in one of his best-known lyrics: “I don’t want to die anonymous.”