Asking musicians about their process or how they write songs is typically frowned upon by music journalists everywhere. But let’s say you did: Odds are they would likely give you a confused, short answer or a long-winded, somewhat fractured account of what they do on any given night they pick up a guitar, or sit down at a piano, or listen to their mind as they stare at a blank wall like this with a pen and a paper. Whatever their answer may be, it’s likely a snoozefest and hardly revelatory. Then again, you could be talking to someone like Lionel Richie, whose personal breakdown of “Three Times a Lady” feels as elegant as the song itself. There are exceptions.

“Clean Rockin’ Daddy” manages to find one. As Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll keeps strumming along in its second episode, Denis Leary’s comedy series navigates iffy waters by dovetailing straight into an episode about songwriting. To his credit, Leary’s clever enough to avoid the visually stagnant and intimate process by tailoring in a sobriety subplot that finds Johnny Rock contractually forced to kick everything—booze, cocaine, weed, pills, you name it—as he delivers five songs in under two months for his newfound daughter, Gigi. And we thought Macauley Culkin was getting even with dad all those years ago!

Naturally, this ultimatum doesn’t sit too well with the rattled Johnny, hot off an all-night binger. He fires back at his daughter, his bandmates, and his manager, arguing that “our favorite bands were high when they were doing their best stuff.” It’s another clichéd rock ‘n’ roll discussion that’s been had at every grungy bar across America, if not the world, but hardly surprising given the titular subject matter and, well, the fact that sobriety has been a topic and issue in Leary’s comedy for decades now—what started out as sweaty gags about speedballs eventually evolved into a nuanced character study on alcoholism via Rescue Me. This subject is comfort food for the guy.

Which is why Johnny’s pro-drug tirade against his colleagues is one of the series’ most colorful moments so far. Up against the wall in what’s more or less an intervention, a chary and wild-eyed Johnny storms around the studio space and casts off a dozen rock ’n’ roll references a minute, name checking everyone from Bowie to the Replacements, as he pleads his case. At one point, he hilariously argues that a sober John Lennon wound up writing a song about “baking a loaf of bread,” brazenly adding that the late Beatle became “so boring if Mark David Chapman hadn’t shot him, Yoko probably would have.” Only Leary can make a line like that funny.

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It’s more than just about the music, though. As Johnny soon discovers, he’s surrounded by not just colleagues but would be friends who are all willing to support him. “Your health comes first, dad, songs come second,” Gigi implores. “You can do it, bro,” a humble Flash suggests. And so, Johnny obliges, and thus begins a somewhat rewarding character wheel, something this show has been starved for since the get-go. Slowly, Johnny spends a little time with each character—Flash, Bam Bam, Rehab, Gigi—as he surreptitiously attempts to pry drugs from them. It’s a transparent tactic, sure, but it works because Leary operates so damn well with each and every actor.

The problem is that they’re still just glimpses. It’s implied that Johnny and Flash have a deeper connection, and while there’s humor to their riffing on music and love (“Ben Benatar!”), it’s not yet enough to sell us on what should be a John and Paul, Joe and Mick, Paul and Tommy-kind of relationship. On the other hand, the little time he has with Bam Bam and Rehab is just enough to both grasp their respective roles and let us in on the minor details that may have led to The Heathens’ initial demise. There’s also some truth to Leary’s tongue-in-cheek commentary that these former drug addicts are all now addicted to prescribed pharmaceuticals.

There’s a subtle feeling of claustrophobia to “Clean Rockin’ Daddy”. Director Michael Bliedin, who lensed the pilot and also helms the next two episodes, bottles up the cast within studios and bedrooms and kitchens and it’s a move that really elevates Johnny’s “crisis” in that he both mentally and physically can’t escape the addiction and his task at hand. When Johnny finally does surface, looking out over all of New York City from the roof of the studio (ahem, our featured image above), it’s equally as refreshing for us as it is for him. It’s also a bold reminder that there’s still much at play here that we haven’t seen.

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His relationship with Gigi, for instance. Their half-strung bond receives a couple of new strings in “Clean Rockin’ Daddy” as the two share a few memorable moments. One highlight finds Johnny parodying Morrissey and Radiohead at the piano, while a later scene at a dining room table proves solitary enough for some genuine drama. “This is a wake up call, dad,” Gigi explains. “You missed the first 20 years of my life. I think it’d be nice if you were around for the next 20.” Leary has undoubtedly written stronger lines in years past, but Elizabeth Gillies delivers this one with just enough pathos to bruise accordingly.

Again, exceptions.

Stray observations

  • Show of hands, who wouldn’t want their hair cut at Mr. Gigi’s?
  • Here’s something for the At Ease board: “Every time I hear a Radiohead song, I feel like I’m failing the SATs all over again.”
  • Bam Bam’s gluten-free tater tots really need ketchup.
  • There’s reason to believe Rehab could be a great fourth man. Not only because he’s written a Gaelic three-hour song cycle on the 1845 potato famine, but also for his notion that the holocaust “has such a History Channel vibe now.”
  • I spaced last week and totally forgot that Greg Dulli was responsible for soundtracking some of the best moments in Rescue Me, specifically his Twilight Singers’ “Bonnie Brae” over Tommy’s dinnertime brawl.
  • “Bowie’s best stuff was before ‘78 when he was high on blow.” I think that’s the fifth blatant reference to The Thin White Duke already?
  • “Bamel toe.”

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