TV Review: ‘Roadies’

TV Review: 'Roadies' from Cameron Crowe
Courtesy Showtime

Remember concept albums? They still exist, but not quite in the form they took in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when rock musicians made double albums because a single album couldn’t hold all their great ideas. The problem was, in those bloated behemoths, there were rarely enough inspired notions to power one album; most double and triple albums were made to pump up the egos of the people who created them, and those gatefold sleeves, when actually acquired by members of the public, were often put to other uses.

The lumbering beast known as the double album has largely gone the way of the dinosaurs, but one can revisit that kind of tedious sprawl in “Roadies,” which feels like a Spotify playlist in search of a reason to exist.

The first episode of “Roadies” is more tolerable than the even longer pilot for the similarly themed ’70s rock drama “Vinyl,” but saying the Showtime program is “better” than the HBO entry is like comparing a head cold with a broken leg. Thanks to undistinguished protagonists and superficial storytelling, both dramas not only drain rock music of much of the vitality they aim to celebrate, they also are sadly indicative of the serious growing pains cable and streaming networks are having in developing dramas.

It’s not a stretch to assume that the pricey “Vinyl” got made at least in part because HBO wanted to keep executive producers Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger in the corporate fold. “Roadies” creator Cameron Crowe is a similarly sought-after name capable of drawing top actors to his project. A war for talent is raging in a TV industry that is flooded with more content every day, and the desire to cement deals with household names is understandable.

But, as was the case with the business-driven considerations that led to those logy ’70s double albums — and ’90s double CDs that cost $20 but had only one good song — these troubling trends in TV have produced an array of artistic products that are designed more to keep various corporate machines humming than they are to please, or challenge, the public. And while “Roadies” is only the latest example of the trend, it’s one of the most disappointing, given its lineage and cast.

Each episode’s stories follow familiar contours, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Crowe and fellow executive producer Winnie Holzman (“My So-Called Life”) are known for their character-driven work, and one expects a rock-oriented drama to have a hangout vibe. But there’s nothing particularly distinctive or interesting about the backstage atmosphere of “Roadies,” and the three lead characters are almost interchangeable.

Tour employees Bill (Luke Wilson), Shelli (Carla Gugino) and Kelly Ann (Imogen Poots) are all mildly neurotic, educated, and hard-working music aficionados who launch into trivia-laden monologues at the drop of a song title and feel attached to their rag-tag work family but are unable to achieve true emotional intimacy with anyone in their lives. Bill and Shelli are older than most of the rest of the crew, but age is one of the only things that sets their characters apart — that and the notion that everyone around these longtime road warriors thinks they should get together. Yet despite the innate charms of Wilson and Gugino, the writing doesn’t produce the kind of bickering spark the characters would need to make that kind of deeper relationship believable.

Joining the traveling circus of a rock tour allows people to postpone adulthood and become part of a joyful but often emotionally unhealthy ad hoc family, and those complicated truths should have given “Roadies” plenty of dramatic fodder. Indeed, there are half-hearted stabs in those directions. But when it’s not simply dull, the show can feel condescending, which is hardly an inviting state of affairs for the audience. The roadies’ insider lingo and their obscure references can make them seem like tiresome rock snobs at a cocktail party. Pearl Jam manager Kelly Curtis is a producer on the project, and of course Crowe got his start as a rock journalist (an era he immortalized in “Almost Famous”), but all the anecdotes and rock-god war stories here never quite cohere into a dramatically compelling narrative.

Every story turn is telegraphed well before it occurs, and none of the characters’ journeys or personal battles gain any heft over time. Kelly Ann thinks people find her humorless in one episode, but people seemed to like her a lot in the previous installment, and that kind of flip-flopping is typical of the series’ sloppy continuity. This is a drama that thinks it’s being adorably shaggy, but it often makes little sense. Characters that are meant to establish a connection with the audience often come off as one-dimensional blowhards, and some that are set up as straw-man bad guys end up registering as more compelling, however slightly, because at least they don’t allow the band or their minions to get too comfortable inside their bubbles of self-absorbed specialness.

As protagonists go, Kelly Ann barely makes an impression. Bill sleeps around a lot, and Shelli’s marriage is on the rocks, but we never meet her significant other. The musicians the roadies give their lives to are also ciphers; only one is introduced in the first few episodes. The uncool management consultant who is hell-bent on downsizing the tour is fairly easily won over to the rebels’ side, and none of the characters are noticeably deepened by that process.

Given the absence of an intoxicating atmosphere and the lack of dramatic momentum, episodes ramble on and on punishingly, like a jam band that refuses to leave the stage. And in one installment, a highly questionable storyline about a backstage assault takes forever to resolve — a resolution that, when it does come, is deeply troubling, to say the least.

All things considered, after enduring “Roadies’” self-satisfied riffs, it’s hard not to think of what Johnny Rotten said on stage at the end of the Sex Pistols’ first (and last) U.S. tour: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

TV Review: 'Roadies'

(Series; Showtime, Sun. June 26, 10 p.m.)

Production

Filmed in Los Angeles by Bad Robot Prods., Vinyl Films, Dooley & Co. Prods. and Warner Bros. Television.

Crew

Executive producers, Cameron Crowe, Winnie Holzman, Bryan Burk, J.J. Abrams, Len Goldstein; co-executive producer, Kathy Lingg; producer, Kelly Curtis; director/writer, Crowe; camera, Nicola B. Marsh; production designer, Clay Griffith; editor, Joe Hutshing; costume designer, Deb Scott; casting, Gail Levin, Candice Elzinga. 60 MIN. 

Cast

Carla Gugino, Luke Wilson, Imogen Poots, Rafe Spall, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Peter Cambor, Colson Baker, Ron White, Luis Guzman, Jacqueline Byers, Finesse Mitchell, Branscombe Richmond, Tanc Sade, Brian Benben, Rainn Wilson

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  1. Delmeister says:

    Wow!! What a totally bitchy review … you must be one unhappy person Mo … I have toured for many years now, still playing live to packed houses … I’ve toured on a bus shared by three bands, toured solo, and trust me, Roadies is very close to the mark … the thing about the actual roadies is they all LOVE music, it’s their one true bond … they don’t need to have relationships with each other, they don’t need to get deep, they just wanna hang on for the ride … some are science grads, some are failed muso’s, but they’re all there to sample the music at it’s very best, raw and in the moment … they work like dogs for this honour, just to be part of the magic … Crowe’s writing is exceptional, his understanding of the music live scene superb … Roadies also helped to introduce us to new bands we may otherwise never have heard, such as the talented Lucius (watch the episode where they play the support act, unbelievably good) … it’s such a shame that a “critic” who obviously has no insight or understanding about the subject matter actually gets to write such drivel, and then try to palm it off as “a review of authority” … Chief Critic? HAHAHAHAHA … lamentable Mo, just lamentable, don’t get how you manage to pull a salary from such a respected rag as Variety … maybe Roadies makes a return in some form down the line, just don’t watch it Mo … it’s clearly way above your intelect

  2. David Tucker says:

    Wow….Maureen Ryan sounds just like the Rainn Wilson character.

  3. Nursechris says:

    The show was bland and boring. And I love almost famous, and have a friend in the cast.
    So disappointed. No wonder it was cancelled.

  4. Kim S. says:

    Obviously you didn’t understand the show at all, Maureen Ryan Chief TV Critic. In fact, I’d go as far as to say you’re in the wrong career. (I’d be interested to know how you rose to the position of “Chief”.) Your worthless opinion, it seems, was partly responsible for ending the series, and for that I will never forgive you. Cameron Crowe is a master story-teller and filmmaker and I hope he gives TV another shot. We loved this show and are completely heartbroken by its ending. If you’re determined to continue this “Chief TV Critic” thing, maybe try something easier, like the Kardashians or Desperate Housewives.

  5. Bridget says:

    Additionally, this phrase “Bill sleeps around a lot, and Shelli’s marriage is on the rocks, but we never meet her significant other.” Leads me to believe this author was so cynical about the show from the start that she stopped paying attention. We do meet her significant other in the final episode. I think this reviewer’s opinion became completely biased when she felt the show was condescending because she didn’t understand the culture our references characters alluded to. Shame.

  6. Bridget says:

    Those saying the show sucks probably: have no intellectual sense of humor, don’t appreciate indie folk-rock, and have never played in or worked a band. The show was heartwarming, endearing and funny from the perspective of the above categories.

  7. Eric Baum says:

    Ron White ruined this show more than any other item. Cameron Crowe must owe Ron a lif debt to let that loser have one frame of this show, let alone a majority story line.

  8. carolyn parrish says:

    I meant to type don’t give up, typo, sorry.
    Carolyn

  9. carolyn parrish says:

    I disagree with all the negativity about ‘Roadies’. After all, I like the pace, the building possibilities in the relationships and the fact that it seems more real that he usual predictable stuff. I love the characters and the music, give me more music. It all brings back a familiar time. My friends all love it and we are always bet each other who will get together. Love Luke Wilson and the fact that he is getting pay back by falling for someone not available. Please give up on this show. I for one would be heartbroken. Just tweak it and maybe speed up the action.
    Carolyn Parrish

  10. Mark says:

    Emmy (no pun intended) winning scripts with relation to sound mixing for a comedy or drama series aren’t written anywhere else in television.

  11. Laura says:

    This show sucks, bad acting and foolish storyline.

  12. Bj Jones says:

    41 minutes in only to find that the show will be a soap opera and nothing more.

  13. Carol says:

    There is nothing “original” about this show. This is formula TV at it’s worst. It has a great group of actors, but even they can’t breathe life into this worn out script. I don’t expect writers to reinvent the world every time, but I don’t except feel like I’ve seen it all before.

    • Bobo Brazil says:

      Have you actually seen the show? I don’t think it premieres until 6/26 so unless you’ve seen an advanced screening, you might want to disregard the review and form your own opinion post de facto. If you have in fact seen it; I apologize. One thing that would add to my enjoyment of the show would be for the Shelli character to take her top off, early and often. It’s Showtime, after all.

  14. Geronimo says:

    I’ve only seen the pilot but I enjoyed it. It’s a breath of fresh air to have a premium cable show that aims for a feel-good slice of life as opposed to edgy realism shot through with dark cynicism and anti-heroes. (Maybe that’s the best way to compare this Showtime dramedy to HBO’s failed Vinyl, which may represent an end-of-the-road for the long-running and successful dark drama trend they began with The Sopranos.) The musical soundtrack and heart-on-the-sleeve dialog are trademark Cameron Crowe and the whole thing is beautifully filmed and presented; it has the look and feel of a feature film rather than a TV series. Whether the characters and the music will be enough to keep me around for the full season remains to be seen but I think it’s off to a good start.

  15. millerfilm says:

    Crowe spent his time with the people on stage. That he didn’t spend time with the people backstage is probably why the show is what it is.

  16. joe bianchi says:

    I WAS A ROADIE AND DRIVER AND SOUND MAN AND LIGHT MAN AND TOUR MANAGER FOR 20 YEARS FROM THE LATE 60,S ON ,THIS SHOW IS SO FULL OF THEM SELVES THEY DONT HAVE A CLUE ,SORRY I WAS HOPING FOR ME BUT IT AINT NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN ,NEVER HAS NEVER WILL !! NEXT .

    • Bobo Brazil says:

      I don’t know what is lamer; you posting in all caps or me commenting that you posted in all caps. Of course, you started it.

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  17. ... says:

    Completely agree about the show’s condescension. I couldn’t finish the pilot for that reason.

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