There’s a scene in the pilot of Roadies—the new music dramedy produced by Cameron Crowe, Winnie Holzman, and J.J. Abrams—when the show makes the term “music lover” uncomfortably literal. Hippie-dippy stalker Natalie Shayne (Jacqueline Byers) has broken into the dressing room of Tom Staton, leader of arena-rock act The Staton-House Band. After flowing into the room as if possessed by the spirit of Stevie Nicks in the “Stand Back” video, Natalie’s eyes widen—she’s spotted the vintage microphone given to Tom by Bruce Springsteen. She removes the windscreen and takes the next logical step: She slips the device between her legs. She’s caught in the act by Staton-House crew member Kelly Ann (Imogen Poots), but it isn’t long before Kelly Ann and her boss, production manager Shelli Anderson (Carla Gugino), are standing by helpless as Natalie deep throats the Springsteen mic. “I gotta say: I’m impressed,” Shelli deadpans. But “impressed” and “amused” are separate emotional states, and as audacious as Roadies can be, it fails to calibrate the space between the two.
Roadies is the latest in a spate of cable shows that are all about the music, man, following Denis Leary’s Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll and Vinyl, the now-canceled collaboration among Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, Terence Winter, and Rich Cohen. The problem with all three is that they’re defenses of musical rebellion fronted by rich dudes with TV shows. Crowe, Scorsese, Jagger, and Leary are establishment figures in 2016, no matter how many personalized cowboy hats or pairs of leather pants their cable avatars wear. At least the behind-the-scenes denizens of Crowe’s show qualify as legitimate outsiders: They’ve chosen a profession that isolates them from loved ones (Gugino’s character goes to great lengths to stay in touch with her husband, who’s managing a Taylor Swift tour), robs them of a permanent mailing address, and operates on irregular hours. Add in the occasional dash of magical realism, and it appears that Roadies’ closest kin aren’t Richie Finestra and Johnny Rock but rather the roaming mid-century entertainers of Carnivàle and American Horror Story: Freak Show. (Repeated references to “management” at least indicate that someone in the writers’ room is familiar with the eternal struggle between Ben Hawkins and Brother Justin.)
Luke Wilson wrangles this motley crew as Bill Hanson, a veteran tour manager whose onscreen introduction breaks the land-speed record for premium-cable nudity. When he’s not playing the part of the male narrator in Okkervil River’s “A Girl In Port,” Bill’s sparring with Shelli, and the two performers fall into an easy Hepburn-Tracy chemistry. Their colleagues aren’t so readily defined. Kelly Ann harbors cinematic aspirations, but something keeps her manning the lighting rig for The Staton-House Band. She’s our entry point into this world, alongside gangly, espresso-slinging haircut Wesley (rapper Machine Gun Kelly, appearing here under his given name, Colson Baker). Sound engineer Donna (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is having a baby with her unseen girlfriend and supplies “song of the day” interludes; Milo (Peter Cambor) does bass tech and affects a British accent. Taking offense to the latter is Reg (Rafe Spall), a bean counter from across the pond tasked with getting Staton-House’s financial house in order.
Reg’s presence is perceived as an affront to artistry and authenticity and all the important stuff of a Cameron Crowe mission statement, which Kelly Ann delivers in the pilot’s centerpiece sequence. It’s not exactly Lloyd Dobler talking about selling, buying, and processing, but it’s not “We bought a zoo!” either. The biggest letdown of Roadies’ first three episodes is that it possesses neither the verbal nor the emotional precision expected of its main creative voices, Crowe and My So-Called Life creator Holzman. It’s playing a long game, dropping hints about the characters’ pasts and the nefarious deeds contained within, but this leaves the crew and the show feeling as anonymous as the concrete corridors they make their workplace. For all the show’s “family” talk, the characters really only seem to see one another that way when they’re holding hands in a preshow huddle.
Like Vinyl and S&D&R&R, Roadies makes its strongest cases when the characters shut up and let the music do the talking. The song-of-the-day concept is too cute by half, but it’s still an inspired bit of mood-setting and artist-recommending. (It’s no surprise that the soundtrack, as a whole, functions like a thoughtfully compiled playlist from a friend.) Better still are the snippets of performance, like the second episode’s cameo from skuzzy blues act Reignwolf, a quasi-music video so showstopping, you can excuse the fact it’s supposed to be a sound check. It’s these sequences that articulate the power and the pull that the dialogue never quite can, particularly frustrating considering that Crowe built his reputation as someone preternaturally gifted at dancing about architecture.
There are things to enjoy about Roadies, like Wilson and Gugino’s bantering and a burgeoning running gag about Staton-House’s inability to hold on to an opening act. But the show can’t bring these elements into harmony with grating performances by Baker and Byers or the baffling Magical Native American characterization of the security chief played by Branscombe Richmond. (After Aloha, you’d think Crowe would be a little more careful about this type of thing.) These are people bonded less by a love of music or a love of each other than an impulse to wander. Through three episodes, it’s a show about people who still haven’t found what they’re looking for that still hasn’t found what it’s looking for.
Real roadies who’ve been on tour with artists like Foo Fighters, Pharrell Williams, and St. Vincent weigh in on the show’s accuracy in our interview.