If you’re one of the many people who were disappointed by the storytelling in the recently canceled Vinyl and still struggling (for good reason) Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll…the new series Roadies, also about the music industry, will not satisfy that itch either. As it is perhaps the worst of the three series; a rambling bore of a dramedy. It might claim to depict the current era of music, rather than 40 years in the past, and look at the working class professionals rather than the white-color business side of music. But like Vinyl, this show treats its industry so insufferably precious, it’s hard to even sit through an entire episode without feeling the need to take a breather. So far I’ve seen the first three episodes of the show, and I can say that while the second episode is slightly better than the pilot, the third put that final nail in the coffin in what should have been declared an unwatchable series by Showtime.
The show is created, written, and directed by Cameron Crowe, and produced by J.J. Abrams and Winnie Holtzman (who also wrote one of three episodes). The show stars Luke Wilson, Carla Gugino, and Imogen Poots as some of the behind the scenes people, behind a band who make the magic happen every night on tour. When the show starts, Poots’s Kelly Ann is leaving to go to film school, which results in some of the most cringe worthy material in the pilot about what looks like a pretty lame film project (which probably would not get her into a film school today). Considering she stars on the show, stuff happens that keeps her on tour. Wilson is a recovering alcoholic managing the band on tour, and Gugino is married to a fellow concert producer on tour with a bigger artist. Ron White makes a brief appearance in the first episode as business manager, and Keisha Castle-Hughes (an academy award nominated actress) is saddled with one of the worst and most underwritten characters on the show as sound engineer Donna. Hughes and actor Branscombe Richmond (whose job I don’t understand) are both affected by some clear examples of racism from Crowe, which is surprising considering the Aloha controversy he’s just getting over and should have learned from (Luis Guzman’s bus driver character completely disappears after the pilot).
Having a cast about as big as Orange is the New Black, none of the characters work or feel the least bit authentic or interesting. When Crowe stops introducing characters, we realize almost all these characters are just unlikable, narcissistic, uninteresting jerks…but jerks Crowe clearly thinks are actually endearing. Imogen Poots has had an uneven career since emerging on the screen as a leading lady…but after being very good in The Green Room, her performance in Roadies is a step back. I’m not sure whose responsible for her character’s problems, but there seems to be such a desperate need to make her the modern-day version of an 80s “cool girl”, her character is relegated to being little more than a mouth piece for Crowe’s philosophies on music and/or life.
Considering the number of times Crowe has been called out for sexism in his later works (Jerry Maguire and on), Carl Gugino’s terribly written character is a massive disappointment. She is far too often turned into the work mom (although the episode written by Winnie Holtzman is far better), who nags and complains of being disappointed in her employees, like a mom trying to guilt teenage sons. But by far, Luke Wilson’s role in this show is the biggest problem. Wilson has been doing some of his best work in the past few years and breaking up the downturn his career was on a few years ago. As Eli in the series Enlighted, he deserved Emmy consideration for his work as an alcoholic/drug addict still attached to his ex-wife. He was hilarious as a loyal as a puppy-dog husband to Kristin Wiig, and gave the best performance of his career in the drama Meadowland last year. For this to be that follow-up is criminal of Crowe. His character of Bill has no depth, and introducing him as a ladies man just recovering from alcohol is an inconsequential attempt to add color to a ridiculously underwritten lead character.
So far the only moment when Bill seems like a real person, with something underneath the surface, is in a brief part of episode 3 when he’s talking with guest Lindsay Buckingham, whose age and experience earns him the wisdom he gives out. But episode 3’s also the worst episode of the series, exposing Crowe’s biggest problems as a filmmaker today. Watching the series, I felt myself doubting that Crowe has an authentic behind the scenes view of the rock music world today. The movie seems so clouded by a sense of misplaced nostalgia for rock & roll days of his youth, he can’t even see the industry as it is today. Crowe has become a younger, music obsessed version of Peter Bogdanovich, whose best work is behind him because he refuses to mature as an artist and learn from his mistakes. For a show that wants to depict the behind the scenes world of the “rock” industry, creator Cameron Crowe is unwilling to critique that world. Like Vinyl, this show’s unbearable importance it places on its own subject matter feels very much like the work of Aaron Sorkin at his very worst (The Newsroom); sanctimonious, preachy, and completely without character specificity that goes beyond personal taste.
Crowe has a definite style, clearly seeing himself as a rare populist filmmaker lost in the era of modern-day cynicism. And I appreciate his desire to show the love and passions of his characters in an unapologetic manner. But particularly with TV (although he also needs more of this in his films) that results in a complete lack of tension, conflict, or opportunities for human growth. All these characters feel juvenile and in desperate need of a reality check Crowe not only refuses to offer…he seems to believe such a thing would be a tragedy. These are the types of characters who use the term sell out well into middle age, without realizing how judgmental and adolescent the term really is. The characters in Singles and Say Anything are decades more mature than these fools Crowe’s so in love with.
The third episode’s definitely the worst, as it focuses on the “roadies” getting even with a critic (because apparently all those who work in music have to love the artists they work with). Crowe writes the character as someone who barely watches or listens to music and wants nothing more than to “control his readers” cultural intake (Crowe seems to believe bloggers are just like cult leaders). Rather than suggest there is something called differing tastes, Crowe sees critics as nothing short of an enemy that want to make a name for themselves by bringing down his work (his reaction to critics of Aloha may have been in his head when writing this). He seems to include this episode so early in the run to act as a shield to protect him from the critique the show deserves. The episode feels like something he can use to hold against criticism of the show with a “look, see what I’m talking about.” I just hope audiences don’t fall for these defensive tactics from a creator that’s really condescending to his own loyal fans.