If ever there was an actor born to play the part of a rock star with a bruised ego and a dwindling grip on reality and changes in pop culture, it’s Denis Leary. In the new FX show Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, Leary slips into the role of Johnny Rock, an aging megalomaniac who almost had a glimpse of fame as the lead singer in the New York band The Heathens in the early nineties. Leary, who is a master at channelling some sort of innate rage into his roles (Rescue Me), embraces the character effortlessly. In fact, after watching this show it’s hard to imagine Leary’s own personality; your mind automatically molds him back to the mannerisms and pathetic desperation observed in Rock.
The episode opens up to a mockumentary, with Dave Grohl introducing The Heathens as the band that changed Nirvana’s lives and Greg Dulli from The Afghan Whigs describing them as the spawn of The Who and The Clash. You don’t actually need former band members, groupies and successful musicians to spell it out for you—the background footage of Johnny snorting up heaps of coke (and what seems to be washing powder) like an anteater at an anthill says it all.
Johnny wanted to play the part of the ever-drunk, ever-high rock star who’s out to get laid by lots of women—whether they’re married or engaged to members of his band or not. The Heathens died before they were ever really born into mainstream stardom; Johnny Rock is at fault and his guitarist Flash (John Corbett) and bassist Rehab (John Ales) want nothing more to do with him. Rock now spends his days whining about his wasted talents and ranting about twitter-fame with his long-term groupie/back-up singer Ava (Elaine Hendrix) in tow. The only remaining friend from his Heathens days is drummer Bam Bam (Robert Kelly), who hooks him up with a bunch of Vicodin on yet another one of his middle-aged benders at a nightclub. When he spots a young, pretty girl giving him what he perceives to be the eye, Johnny knocks back another drink and announces his plan to woo her to Bam Bam and Ava. You may have missed that part though, unless you speak “Shane MacGowan,” like Bam Bam. Johnny face plants on his way over to work his charms on the target for the night, but makes a speedy, if not rushed, recovery. Without further ado, he sticks his tongue down her throat only to be greeted with a firm kick in the nuts and a newsflash: Turns out she’s his daughter, Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies).
There seems to be no trace of any lingering shock over his rather humiliating introduction into fatherhood. Johnny’s too wrapped up in getting back into the business, though he’s not exactly open to starting from the very bottom again. His agent, Ira Feinbaum (Josh Pais), tries to talk him into playing in tribute bands or writing jingles, but Johnny considers himself to be, as an artist, above all that. After his agent drops him, he prays to a guy he doesn’t even believe in:
“I…I can’t be, like, a bartender or just like, a regular person. I mean, why did you give me all this talent if I was just gonna fail?”
As he exits the agency, Johnny and his piteous entourage get embarrassingly aggressive with two young women on the other side of the road. As they approach, Johnny realizes one of them is his daughter Gigi. Not only is she exploring New York, she’s here on a mission: To become famous with her father’s songs. It’s hard to warm to Gigi; I found her very unlikeable. It’s obvious that she is meant to be portraying the role of a spoiled, I-get-what-I-want-when-I-want-it type of neo-punk girl, but to me she was just an overplayed version of a Blair (Gossip Girl) going through an Avril Lavigne phase, and it just doesn’t work. Johnny is reluctant to participate in his daughter’s “ridiculous pipedream,” until a sum of $200,000 is mentioned. There’s only one catch: Gigi insists on him getting former Heathens Flash and Rehab on board.
Flash has gone on to become a session player for Lady Gaga and likes to boast about his 770,000 Twitter followers. When Rock goes to meet him, he pleads for some paparazzi attention and goes on a crazy rant about celebrities becoming celebrities by blowing “celebrity dick.” Flash has no interest in Johnny’s “rock-and-roll destructive bullshit ways” until Johnny shows him a saucy picture of Gigi; suddenly Flash is all game. They meet the following morning and it seems like Johnny has developed strong, protective fatherly feelings towards Gigi overnight, forbidding Rehab, Flash and Bam Bam from sleeping with his daughter. Enter Gigi and, after a lecture on which one of them she’d be likely to sleep with, she opens the set with The Heathens track “Animals,” which turns out to be more about shameless flirtation and body-rubbing with Flash than proving her pipedreams to be a reality. Seeing the look on Rock’s face when he realizes he is about to lose his own dream to his daughter is actually rather touching.
As first episodes go, this one was a little bumpy. There’s not enough time to really get into the characters because everything from learning about who The Heathens are, to Johnny reconnecting with his long lost daughter happens so fast, it’s not entirely convincing. It does, however, have obvious potential in terms of dialogue and portraying what it means to be famous today. Even if you’re not yet sold on the characters in Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, the sterling music history anecdotes alone will have you tuning back in for episode two.