FX’s new comedy Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll executive produced by and starring Denis Leary keeps true to his legendary staccato energy and delivery. In a sea of odious clunker millennial comedies like “Jane The Virgin” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” this new effort panders to the older crowd, those who might have actually drawn breath in the 1970s who remember the days before autotune cacked up the radio star.
Leary’s missed FX series “Rescue Me” had a somber backdrop of 9/11 that developed into a raucous, character rich tapestry of blue collar firemen and their women all dealing with survivor’s issues, with added middle-aged malaise of dealing with ailing parents and marital demise due to temptation, familiarity and contempt.
In the classic 1994 comedy film “The Ref,” Leary played the impatient, whip-smart common thief “Gus,” who if had a Boston Brahmin’s chance in hell, he would’ve been CEO of a Fortune 250 company.
In “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” Leary’s Johnny – formerly of The Heathens – is still street-savvy but has a myopic view on his reality. An artist on the downswing and feeling the sting of irrelevance, Johnny cobbles a sad bastard existence in one of the most expensive cities on planet earth trying to recreate the bottled lightening The Heathens had back in the day.
Lucky for him that a seminal fluid dividend shows up in the nick of time: Daughter Gigi (Liz Gillies) is everything he is not: Gorgeous, focused, sober, driven and well heeled. Lucky for dad that she was a fan growing up and will overlook his paternal digressions and mine his contacts and reputation for a chance at rock and roll glory.
The show grows on you, as the writing and the lines are crisper each episode and the actors selected are brilliant at selling this understated, delightfully profane adult satire of aging out in a business that demands youth.
I love the series and have rounded up my top five reasons you should invest in it as well:
John Corbett as Flash
Corbett is Flash, the aging well and doing well slap in Johnny’s face. Corbett’s Flash is like fine wine, he’s got the look still and the gig (Lady Gaga’s lead guitarist) and is the juice Gigi is seeking through her father Johnny (Leary).
Corbett is a musician and it shows here. Unlike other projects we have seen Corbett in, his Flash is all about the Benjamins, nurturing his gig as lead guitarist for Lady Gaga’s tour, a total sellout in Johnny’s eyes. Flash agrees to help out Johnny (and Gigi) and jam as The Heathens one more time only when he sees how hot Gigi is, and his character seems to have a thing for barely legal young women. But watch for intense chemistry as Gigi (Liz Gillies) and Flash jam together on the song “Animal.”
Elizabeth “Liz” Gillies as Gigi
Liz Gillies is the one star from that whole stable of Nick kids (Victorious, Hannah Montana, Sam & Cat etc) who’s aged beautifully into a fierce all-around talent. Her look is perfect and her voice is spot on as Gigi shows the old guys how to belt out their old hits with a new and improved sexy energy. She has “it” by the tonnage.
Gillies is also deft at blending drama and comedy too, with her delivering one of the funnier lines of the second episode “Clean Rockin’ Daddy.” Her marching orders to get Johnny to sober up and write songs in a clean state leads to writer’s block on steroids for dad, as Leary’s Johnny reminds us of all the great music that came from the fucked up pre-1978 David Bowie years, “Let’s Dance? Let’s not David.”
Johnny reminds the band and Gigi how the Stones, the Ramones, the Replacements and John Lennon did their best writing under the influence. This episode sees Gigi reach out in a scene that rang authentic in sentiment: “This is a wake up call, dad…you missed the first 20 years of my life. I think it’d be nice if you were around for the next 20.”
Gillies carries this role off without appearing anemic or being subsumed by Leary’s overall eight hundred pound gorilla presence in scene. In this episode we see Johnny’s attempts to write songs clean leads his band to abandon any attempts at sobriety. After a heartfelt rendition of his new song, the band is horrified and daughter Gigi gets the best last line, “Dad, that song sounds like something Sting would write if he was living inside Sarah McLachlan vagina.” Cue the Jack, coke and weed.
John Ales as Rehab
John Ales stars as “Sonny “Rehab” Silversteen, a true musician. There’s reason to believe Rehab could be the sidewinder in this cast. His understated role is freaking hilarious when he is allowed to speak. Rehab is a pro at getting sober, with five different rehabilitation center stints, he no longer drinks or uses drugs (except the copious pills his doctors prescribe him).
In particular the gem of a scene where a pained Leary has to entertain Rehab’s “art,” a Gaelic three-hour song cycle about the 1845 Irish potato famine “An Gorta Mor” (“Clouds of death are in the sky…”), especially when Johnny is apoplectic about the fact Ireland is surrounded by water and fish. The holocaust line “has such a History Channel vibe now” was a good one too.
Dead serious, Rehab’s dream is to bring “An Gorta Mor” to Broadway with an operatic Irish tenor like Ronan Tynan singing the lead role. Or Liam Neeson. Rehab really dug him in the Taken trilogy. The Irish-American pathos always hangs heavy on a Leary project, and this non-Irish wildcard character plays well into the fold.
Denis Leary as Johnny Rock
Like a well seasoned brisket ready to slow cook or a bottle of 21 year old single malt scotch ready to crack, Leary is knife and fork delicious as an aging rockstar whose ego never faded away. Johnny’s loquacious, resourceful, and freaking lucky as his long-lost daughter Gigi (who has both money and a well realized dream) plucks him out of the Goodwill store of life and offers him a chance to bring The Heathens back to the stage.
Caveat is, Johnny has to make nice with Flash and writer the songs, stepping back from the lead man limelight. Can he do it? The conniving money hungry famewhore in him says “yes.” But pass the vicodin and Jack Daniels first. Leary sells the role with all the flourish and fun you would expect from a character who pukes at the thought of Morrissey, Radiohead or Cold Play. Something tells us Leary probably does too.
Robert Kelly as Bam Bam
Robert Kelly stars as “Bam Bam” – Hector “Bam Bam” Jimenez. I cannot say enough positive things about this Boston comic who can steal the limelight and elevate Louis C.K.’s game when in scene with him on “Louie.” The Bang Bang scene alone was aces.
Bam Bam is the heart, soul and juice of the band for sly and seasoned zingers that keep this cast chemistry on its toes. Kelly has whatever that magical thing is that allows stand-ups to graduate from gigging in clubs to acting, and he does it tremendously well.
Our percussive powerhouse Bam Bam never gave up on the idea that The Heathens, specifically Flash and Johnny, could work together again. Bam’s gigging with Irish rockers The Pogues gave him the ability to decipher a drunk Johnny’s incoherent babbling (“I speak Shane McGowan). Bam has been clean and sober for two decades, but gives all his addictive energy now to food. Note: Gluten-free tater tot bowls could become a thing.
Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll Season one continues Thursdays at 10 pm e/p only on FX.
Next On July 30: Lust For Life: Johnny dies. On the internet. And decides to stay dead for financial reasons. Which leads to a big break for Gigi.