Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

New NBC arrivals Young Rock and Kenan have their work cut out for them

Dwayne Johnson as himself in Young Rock, Kenan Thompson as Kenan Williams in Kenan
Dwayne Johnson as himself in Young Rock, Kenan Thompson as Kenan Williams in Kenan
Photo: Frank Masi/NBC, Casey Durkin/NBC

Following the end of The Good Place, NBC is set to lose another one of its most prominent sitcoms, as Superstore finishes its six-season run next month. This means there’s a void in the network’s slate that needs to be filled up with compelling new comedies. NBC is leaning on two big names to coast through this sitcom shortage: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Saturday Night Live stalwart Kenan Thompson, who lead the newest comedies to grace the network’s primetime lineup.

Johnson co-created and stars in Young Rock, which chronicles three pivotal stages of the Fast And Furious star’s adolescence. In Kenan, Thompson plays the titular character, a recent widower who raises his two young girls with the help of his brother and father-in-law. For both shows—which air back-to-back on Tuesday nights—the pilot episodes fulfill their duty of setting the stage, introducing character dynamics, and offering a taste of the show’s comedic tone. The premieres, especially Kenan’s, let their two stars chew up the scenery; though in Young Rock, Johnson is primarily depicted by three actors who play him as a preteen (Adrian Groulx), teenager (Bradley Constant), and young adult (Uli Latukefu). But if NBC’s other new comedy Mr. Mayor, led by Ted Danson and Holly Hunter, offers any lesson, it’s not to bank solely on famous faces to carry the show forward.

Although it’s difficult to determine a comedy show’s mettle only on the basis of its first episode, a pilot still has to capture the audience’s attention enough to compel them to continue to watch. The debuts of Young Rock and Kenan only get about halfway there. The former is surprisingly heartwarming but lacks humor; it’s the other way around for the latter. These rookie sitcoms have their work cut out for them, especially if they ever want to reach the same vaunted place as fellow midseason comedies Seinfeld and Parks And Recreation. To gauge where Young Rock and Kenan are on this journey, here are some first impressions of their pilots.

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Young Rock needs a chance to grow

Dwayne Johnson is a legend, so his hardcore fans will love diving into the formative years of his life. Co-created by Johnson and Fresh Off The Boat’s Nahnatchka Khan, Young Rock aims to explore how he got to where he is—which, according to the opening scene of “Working The Gimmick” (B), is a run for the presidency. The year is 2032, and The Rock wants to lead the country, so he’s in the middle of a post-primaries campaign trail. His slogan, if you’re wondering, is “Just hang on, I’m coming.” His activities include dissing Kevin Hart and sitting down for an interview with actor-turned-journalist Randall Park to connect with American voters and let them know he’s more than just some rich and famous fella. In this interview, which bookends the episode, Johnson shares intimate stories and struggles of growing up in the wrestling world, long before he became the highest paid actor in Hollywood. 

Flashback to 1980s Hawaii, where a 10-year-old Johnson (Groulx) is basking in the glory of his father Rocky’s (Joseph Lee Anderson) success as a professional wrestler, hanging out with the likes of Andre The Giant. He enjoys the pros that come with this, but can’t help feeling a little let down by his dad spending more time partying with colleagues than with him. Johnson’s mother Ata (Stacey Leilua), who feels similarly neglected, becomes a source of support for her son. As a 15-year-old in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Johnson (Constant) learns how to “work the gimmick” and turns into a petty thief to appear cool and rich at school. As a young adult athlete at the age of 18 in Miami, Johnson (Latukefu) wants to start with a clean slate (minus the stealing) and carve a name for himself outside of his father’s popularity.

The pilot crams all these life stages into one episode really quickly. Yet, these stages are anchored by more emotional notes than anyone would anticipate from Young Rock. The performances, especially by Anderson and Leilua, are spot-on. Groulx, Constant (who’s an early standout), and Latukefu look eerily like a young Johnson, so kudos to the casting team for scoring them. The comedy tends to fall flat, which is where the pilot suffers the most, but the show looks like a fascinating way to learn more about Johnson. It’s also the rare network sitcom to focus on a Pacific Islander character, family, and culture. If it finds its footing and comedic vibe, Young Rock could go places.

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Kenan is too generic for its lead star

Eighteen seasons into SNL, Kenan Thompson is often the best part of the sketch comedy show, acing his dialogue delivery with comic timing and dead-on expressions. That’s why it’s upsetting that the pilot episode of Kenan (B-)
doesn’t do justice to his talent. The Kenan & Kel star is still good in his return to the sitcom format, but the narrative setup just isn’t strong enough.

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Kenan Williams (Thompson) is a widower and efficient father, raising his two young daughters Aubrey and Birdie with the help of his previously absent father-in-law Rick (Don Johnson), and excitable brother/manager Gary (Chris Redd). The show has bits of Full House in it, with a newly single dad getting help from two unlikely, unqualified people to raise the kids, who are smart enough on their own. Kenan, like Danny Tanner, is a morning show host who’s close with his executive producer, Mika (Single Parents breakout Kimrie Lewis). Kenan hasn’t fully dealt with his wife Cori’s death; he refers to her as the “deceased parental figure” and refuses to discuss her with his friends or family, who are just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Predictably, it drops right in the middle of his show in front of his co-host Tami (Taylor Louderman), guest doula, and studio audience.

Thompson does well with his comedy scenes, but his performance in the mushier, sensitive ones is still a little clumsy. The pilot feels uneven despite going the formulaic route—it doesn’t offer anything new. There is potential in the grief storyline, as Kenan finally comes around to discussing Cori, including their absurd meet-cute: Cori played Kenan’s mom (!) on a fictional show in which they both starred. Redd’s maniacal energy balances Thompson’s calmer demeanor, which recalls their on-screen chemistry on SNL, but that dynamic doesn’t extend to the rest of the ensemble, making the group scenes shaky.

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The Kenan pilot leans into sitcom one-liners, which are often laugh-out-loud funny. There’s the odd ingenious bit, including one that sees Rick placing bets on This Is Us plot twists, and the real-life pie vs. cake debate gets a real resolution. But it’s not enough to keep the show going. Given Thompson’s history with the network, Kenan might continue long enough to find some stable ground. But in its first outing, the sitcom fails to strike the right balance between affecting and amusing.

Staff Writer (TV)

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