“Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” is a great title, a good premise and a just-OK show. That’s in part because Denis Leary, who created and stars in the FX comedy, and even worked on the original songs, deviates from the aging-rock-god concept to incorporate a semi-touchy-feely, certainly sitcom-like element: his central character discovers he has a grown daughter he never knew, which provides him the excuse to reunite the band. Still fun in fits and starts, the series begins with enough energy to help it coast along, abetted by rock cameos that provide an additional helping of street cred.
Opening with what feels like a mockumentary section, the show quickly details the meteoric rise of the Heathens, a 1990 band headlined by Leary’s lead singer Johnny Rock and guitar player Flash (John Corbett), who teamed to write the group’s signature songs. But the band partied hard and flamed out, leaving Johnny clinging to the remnants of his fame when Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies) shows up, informing him that she’s the kid he didn’t know he had.
What’s more, Gigi has a great set of pipes, and is less interested in a fuzzy reunion than tapping into Johnny’s creative skills, which means seeking to repair his estranged ties to Flash, drummer Bam Bam (Robert Kelly) and bass player Rehab (John Ales). “I don’t need a dad,” Gigi sneers. “I need a g-damn songwriter.”
Still, Johnny and Gigi immediately jump over the awkward part of this newfound relationship and settle in to her cracking wise and him slipping into overprotective dad mode, worrying excessively about her sleeping with Flash (or for that matter, anyone). Gillies has a powerful voice — and the early episodes give her ample opportunity to showcase it — but the writing of her character is the show’s weak link, and a general drag on the proceedings.
“Sex & Drugs” fares best in its smaller moments, riffing on Johnny’s absurd attachment to the insane perks that go with being a rock star when they land an out-of-town gig, exploring his inability to write a song while sober, and playing off his lingering excitement over being recognized, only to learn his “fans” think he’s Christopher Walken. A later episode features the group seeking therapy with a sort of rock-star-whisperer (guest Griffin Dunne), which merely exposes how messed up and self-absorbed every one of them is.
Leary has clearly thrown his all (which includes sporting an early Hall & Oates hairdo) into the project, exhibiting a genuine love for rock and its attendant excesses. Still, that’s not particularly new territory, which raises the bar somewhat for the show in terms of expectations and bringing something fresh to the mix.
“Sex & Drugs” premieres along with the second season of “Married,” and extends a Leary-FX collaboration that yielded a lengthy run with “Rescue Me.” Ultimately, though, as satires based on fictional rock bands go, and measured on a “This Is Spinal Tap” scale of 1 to 10 (“Spinal Tap,” of course, being an 11), give “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” about a seven. It’s got a good beat, and you can dance to it.