In a year of prestige TV featuring respected auteurs mixing music history with fiction like Vinyl and The Get Down, the best thing about Cameron Crowe’s Showtime series Roadies may be its relative lack of ambition. Instead of heroic musical innovators creating new genres, the protagonists of Roadies are the touring crew of an arena rock act, working out the day to day logistics of putting on a show. But as the show’s flawed, low rated first season comes to a close this weekend, and I wonder whether the network will pick it up for renewal, I find myself hoping Roadies gets a chance to continue, and improve.
Rock ‘n’ roll and scripted television became pillars of American pop culture around the same time, but they’ve always been strange bedfellows. Early attempts to fuse the two resulted in campy shows like The Monkees and The Partridge Family doing numbers on both Nielsen and Billboard. But after a few decades with few attempts beyond Steven Bochco’s 1990 flop Cop Rock, musical series have become increasingly commonplace since the 2009 debut of Glee. There’s been a rash of TV about hip hop since the success of Empire, as well as shows about country (Nashville) and even Broadway (Smash). But rock has been harder to pin down: HBO’s Vinyl lasted only one season, and FX’s Denis Leary vehicle Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll is plugging along in an unremarkable second season.
On paper, Roadies has the perfect pedigree. One of Cameron Crowe’s most celebrated films, 2000’s Almost Famous, was an autobiographical celebration of ‘70s rock stardom, based on the director’s own experience as a teenage Rolling Stone reporter on the road with rock stars. He was until a few years ago married to a rock legend, Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson, and has directed documentaries about Pearl Jam and Elton John. And even his movies that aren’t about music have been punctuated by memorable needle drops: Tom Cruise screaming along with “Free Fallin’,” John Cusack blasting Peter Gabriel from a boombox or uh… that song Cameron Diaz sings in Vanilla Sky, which is playing in the background when Cameron Diaz screams “I SWALLOWED YOUR CUM, THAT MEANS SOMETHING!”
But Roadies is not Almost Famous: The Series, for better and for worse. It’s an ensemble show, and the characters are all hard working professionals, not starry-eyed amateur journalists or Band-Aids, though they often talk about the band they work for like awestruck teenagers. Where Almost Famous worked at threading a fictitious ‘70s band, Stillwater, into rock history, even providing original songs for the band to play, Roadies is about the largely unseen Staton-House Band. Many episodes open with the band’s set ending, or conclude with the band heading to the stage, and only occasionally do you get more than a brief scene of dialogue with gregarious frontman Tom Staton (Catero Alain Colbert) or brooding songwriter Christopher House (Tanc Sade). It’s like if The West Wing had stuck to its original plan of keeping the president offscreen most of the time.
Our most recent release, topping the iTunes chart in Spring 2016. A fun one to record 🎶 pic.twitter.com/5R10CycbJC
— Staton-House Band (@StatonHouse) August 4, 2016
This is, of course, so you can spend more time with the titular roadies. The headlining actors, Luke Wilson as road manager Bill and Carla Gugino as production manager Shelli, are the exact kind of amiable but unremarkable stars a show like Roadies deserves. Showtime has become an odd career purgatory for respected film stars like Don Cheadle and William H. Macy who’ve sunk years of their careers into lightweight dramedies, probably passing on a few great movie roles to make several seasons of middling television.
A show like Roadies should be a field day for unglamorous character actors, but unsurprisingly, TV roadies are a little younger and cuter than the real thing. Ron White, best known as the only comedian from The Blue Collar Comedy Tour who’s actually funny, plays the grizzled old touring veteran Phil, and Luis Guzman plays the Bob Dylan-loving bus driver Gooch, but both of them get little screentime and disappear for entire episodes. Instead, we spend more time with bass guitar tech Milo (Peter Cambor), who sometimes speaks in a fake British accent, blue-haired sound engineer Donna (Keisha Castle-Hughes), and the very annoying backstage espresso barista Wes.
Wes is played by Colson Baker, better known as Machine Gun Kelly or MGK. Machine Gun Kelly is a rapper signed to Bad Boy Records who’s somewhere below Mac Miller and above Stitches in the taxonomy of famous contemporary white rappers. He’s had two albums chart in the top 5 of the Billboard 200, one of them less than a year ago, but you’d be forgiven for never having heard his music. He’s tall, skinny, and covered in bad tattoos and looks convincing as a rocker, but on Roadies he always sounds awkward delivering lines like “I love Mike McCready” or “woo, Lindsey fuckin’ Buckingham is fuckin’ amazing!” He already cursed out Stereogum’s editor-in-chief on Twitter, so it shouldn’t damage any relationships to say here that he’s the most tiresome and contrived character on Roadies.
The closest thing to a protagonist in the show’s largest cast, however, is Wes’ twin sister, the young lighting rigger Kelly Ann (Imogen Poots). She, like Crowe, is caught between her rock roots and cinematic ambitions — she’s even a fan of his idol, Billy Wilder. The pilot episode hinges on her decision to dilemma about whether to stay with the tour or start film school – obviously, she chooses the tour. In one endearing episode, she watches a TED Talk about being too serious and goes about methodically learning how to tell a joke (shades of Say Anything’s Diane Court and the failed attempts at levity in her graduation speech).
Usually the main characters in Cameron Crowe films that stand in for the director are young men, but his female leads have often been complex, well drawn characters who get some of his best speeches. His 2005 flop Elizabethtown (“the worst movie of all time“) led critic Nathan Rabin to coin the term “manic pixie dream girl” for one-dimensional love interests that seemingly only exist to improve the lives of their male leads. I feared Kelly Ann had some manic pixie in her when she first cruised across the backstage area on a skateboard, but Roadies does well with the female characters it cares about, though there are some it’s not as kind to. The pilot features Natalie, a cartoonishly crazed groupie who sneaks into a dressing room and simulates fellatio with one of the band’s microphones, a far less sympathetic portrait than Almost Famous’ Penny Lane.
The only Staton-House Band song that you hear even a few opening chords of in the show is “Janine,” one of the band’s signature songs that makes a dramatic return to the setlist (I doubt it’s better than David Bowie’s “Janine,” and I know it’s not better than Soul Coughing’s “Janine,” but I’ll buy into the fantasy). The song’s inspiration, Christopher House’s ex-girlfriend Janine (singer/songwriter Joy Williams in her acting debut), shows up at the band’s hometown gig in Denver. But instead of a sentimental reunion, she explodes at House about the aggravation of being a famous muse, who he abandoned only to romanticize her in interviews as “some special gift to give you sad songs and a weepy story.”
Kelly Ann’s flirtation with the tour’s uptight new British financial advisor Reg (Rafe Spall) initially struck me as the only romantic subplot more forced and uninteresting than the sexual tension between Bill and the married Shelli. But they do have onscreen chemistry, which culminated this week in one of the show’s more affecting scenes. A drunk Kelly Ann makes out with Reg, but stops to tell him, “I’ve only had sex drunk. I’ve never had sex not drunk, and I’d really like to try that sometime.”
In fact, this week’s penultimate episode may have been my favorite to date, one that raised my overall opinion of Roadies. There’s a reference to Neil Young’s infamous “eat a peach” telegram to Stephen Stills, but they don’t overexplain it for people don’t know about it, or even use the phrase “eat a peach.” And Phil says that his favorite song of all time is “Willin’,” the trucker ballad by the brilliant, eccentric ‘70s cult band Little Feat whose albums stay in constant rotation in my car (a cover of “Willin'” newly recorded for the show by Jackson Browne and Lucius plays later in the episode).
Film directors who lend their reputation to a TV series aren’t always especially hands-on — often they’ll direct the pilot and then take an executive producer and little else on most future episodes. But Crowe’s fingerprints are all over Roadies as the director and/or primary credited writer of seven of the ten episodes. And to be honest, TV suits Cameron Crowe. His less successful recent films like last year’s Aloha and 2011’s We Bought A Zoo probably would’ve functioned better as character-driven TV shows than as oddly plotted, strangely pointless feature films.
It’s Crowe’s gently quirky comic sensibility and vast record collection that seem to allow for moments like the “eat a peach” reference, or the unlikely sight of a TV character getting emotional about the death of Little Feat frontman Lowell George. Some of the show’s false notes occur in the episodes credited to Crowe, but it’s in the other episodes that the cast of Roadies embark on silly adventures of the week that make it resemble a rock ‘n’ roll Entourage. At one point, Kelly Ann has to wear a hat shaped like a turkey because she misplaced her backstage pass.
Cameron Crowe will turn 60 next year, and his taste as reflected in the show is not terribly hip. Too often, the more prominent music cues on the song are from guys way past their prime: a Daryl Hall solo track from 2011, Mudcrutch instead of old school Tom Petty, a Springsteen bootleg cued up to “Radio Nowhere” of all songs. Crowe treats the soundtrack as his personal mixtape more than usual, even shoehorning a scene into the episode where Donna plays a track and text crawls across the screen introducing it as the “song of the day.” Sometimes it’s a cool oldie like Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain,” sometimes it’s the new Phantogram single that the band shows up to perform in a cameo on the show.
The Staton-House Band, like many of the show’s fictional elements, makes less sense the more you think about it (they’re in Denver two episodes after they’re in Atlanta – who the hell planned this tour route?). They are, it seems, a vaguely rootsy band that started around the early 2000’s, but it’s hard to tell if they have Top 40 hits or are just a big touring act. Much is made of the band suddenly changing their setlist after playing the same set for a year, so they’re not a jam band. Are they contemporaries of Kings Of Leon? A less hip Arcade Fire? A younger Wilco? One episode revolves around the band being photographed for the cover of Vanity Fair, which rarely features rock stars of less renown than Bono, in one episode they’re higher on the bill at a corporate event than Future, so they’re pretty damn famous.
The invented aspects of Roadies can be entertaining, though. The third episode, “The Bryce Newman Letter,” revolves around The Staton-House Band getting dissed by a “famous” music blogger clearly based on Bob Lefsetz. Bryce Newman, played as a preening egomaniac by Rainn Wilson, gets high at the band’s show and has a psychedelic episode onstage, complete with goofy CGI of a talking cactus that had to be one of the largest, most unnecessary expenses in the entire Roadies production budget. But it’s still pretty fun to see an hour of television revolve around mocking The Lefsetz Letter, even focusing on details like the author’s pastrami sandwich fixation.
The satirical running gags include repeated references to Taylor Swift becoming the first musician to perform in outer space, and the characters’ obsession with a TV show called Dead Sex. In the alternate universe of Roadies, David Spade has experienced a career upswing as the creator and star of the popular series about a virus that requires people to have sex to stay alive (Rafe thinks Spade is like “a young Anthony Hopkins”).
Dead Sex is the kind of hip, violent, sexy cable show that Roadies is proud not to be (although there are occasional gratuitous scenes of Bill bedding as many young women as the rock stars he works for). And the show’s baby boomer perspective on rock may be what keeps it from ever finding the kind of large, youthful audience that keeps TV shows on the air. If the Staton-House Band keeps it together for another tour, I’d show up to watch Roadies again next year. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Showtime gives its timeslot to Dead Sex.