Young Rock, NBC’s likable new sitcom about Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s youth, has a curious problem: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The immensely charismatic and popular megastar is the worst thing about his own show, and it threatens to completely undermine Young Rock’s low-key (but substantial) charm.
If you haven’t seen Young Rock, it’s similar to Chris Rock’s sitcom Everybody Hates Chris. It’s a nostalgic trip back to Johnson’s formative days, where we see the familial relationships and life experiences that made him into the man he became. Unlike Chris Rock’s show, which was strictly linear and followed the young comedian from middle school into high school, Young Rock rotates between three different points in Dwayne Johnson’s life: when he was 10 and living in Hawaii, when he was a high school freshman in Pennsylvania, and his arrival at the University of Miami when he was 18. Young Rock also differs from Everybody Hates Chris in that its star doesn’t just appear as an unseen narrator; The Rock himself bookends every episode with segments set in the year 2032. These scenes are the major problem with the show. Young Rock struggles with this weird framing device of Dwayne Johnson running for president in the future, which starts and ends every episode on a bewildering note.
Nothing works with these presidential campaign scenes, the entire concept of which is just fundamentally flawed. The Rock has discussed his potential political ambitions for years, but framing the show as part of a presidential race unnecessarily brings up something that almost everybody is sick of thinking about, which is a goddamned presidential election. We just got through one of the most obnoxious, mentally and spiritually draining elections of our lifetimes; nobody’s in the mood to hear about another one, even if it’s complete fiction and a decade away.
This framing device also makes The Rock look a little too arrogant. Arrogance is a huge part of The Rock persona, of course, but it’s always been counterbalanced by his charm, sense of humor, and the fact that he seems genuinely decent off camera. Young Rock marks the first time outside the world of wrestling that a Dwayne Johnson character has seemed too full of himself, and unfortunately that character is supposed to actually be Johnson. Young Rock is already a vanity project; there’s no need to intensify that by starting every episode with Old Rock running for president, and acting like the aisle-crossing, party-uniting savior of American politics.
It’s not just The Rock who comes off poorly in these scenes. They’re so hamfisted and poorly written that they make every actor who appears in them look bad. Most episodes so far have started with Candidate The Rock being interviewed on a news show hosted by Randall Park, the star of Fresh Off the Boat who also plays Marvel’s Jimmy Woo from WandaVision and the Ant-Man movies. Park isn’t playing a broadcast journalist, though; he’s playing himself, Randall Park, who apparently between today and 2032 retires from acting to become a news anchor. Sure, it’s just a weird little meta gag, but it’s off-putting to see a talented comic actor play a completely thankless role that’s supposed to actually be them, and not a character. A typical opening sees Park ask The Rock a question so meek and admiring that you couldn’t even call it a softball, with The Rock answering it with the cornball flattery of an inspirational speaker. Almost without fail Park reacts like somebody who’s never actually known a person before, regularly responding to The Rock’s platitudes with incredulity or confusion. Park plays the most oblivious and unprofessional broadcast journalist since whoever’s hosting OANN at this very moment. The Rock then has to explain the patently obvious, affecting a folksy charm that doesn’t stick before launching into an anecdote from his youth.
From there the show’s often very good. The actors who play Johnson and his family are all likable, charismatic performers whose relationships feel real and lived in. Stacey Leilua as The Rock’s mom, Ata Johnson, and Joseph Lee Anderson as his wrestling dad, Rocky Johnson, had their characters down pat from the very first episode. They have to play these characters at three different points in their lives, each time with drastic changes in their relationship to each other and in their own personal status, and Leilua and Anderson pull it off with ease and confidence. The heavy focus on pro wrestling, especially in the Hawaii episodes, might drive away viewers who don’t properly appreciate the one true art, but it’s obviously a massive part of Johnson’s life, and for wrestling fans these moments constitute one of the show’s main draws. Plus Matthew Willig is surprisingly good as André the Giant, replicating not just the Frenchman’s size but the sweetness and sorrow that often pooled up within his eyes. The show’s rarely hilarious, but it’s amiable, sweet, and sometimes relatable, like the modern day Wonder Years it obviously wants to be.
And then, after the body of the episode is over, it ends once more with another awkward scene set in 2032. Another opportunity to kneecap The Rock’s innate charm with aspirational sap that portrays him as the only person who can truly unite and save America. These scenes obviously strive to show The Rock in the plainspoken, common sense light of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but they come off as naïve and unrealistic, making every character and actor involved with them look foolish. And we didn’t even mention Rosario Dawson showing up as a running mate who doesn’t even know why she was picked, and who gets maybe one line in her introduction.
If you’re watching a network sitcom called Young Rock, odds are that you like The Rock. Hell, if you’re a human being who’s been alive in the last 20 years, odds are that you like The Rock, or at least did at some point. And the show has done a fine job of making its young Rocks likable, even when they’re petty or immature. The real Rock comes off as weirdly un-Rock-like, though. The sitcom that assumes everybody loves The Rock has made Dwayne Johnson himself more unlikable than anything else he’s done since becoming the biggest box office star in the world. And that’s probably not something you want to do if you’re serious about one day running for president—or even just want people to watch your sitcom.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.