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Why Does ‘Roadies’ Appear to Think Sexual Assault Is Funny?

Reviews of “Roadies” have mentioned its overly meandering vibe and its lack of reliable momentum and memorable characters. Some critics liked it less than me, and some liked it more, but many had the same issues I did, which I mentioned in my “Roadies” review. But all of those general complaints pale in comparison to what happens in the third episode of the series (spoilers ahead).

I’m writing about that installment of the Showtime drama because it treats the drugging and sexual assault of a human being as a funny prank. To make matters worse, it then depicts the character in question as grateful for the assault.

Both the survivor and the people who perpetrated the attacks on him brim with satisfaction at the end of the episode, because they all seem to think that everything worked out really well.

For years now, there’s been an ongoing conversation about how sexual assault is treated on scripted television. Clearly, that conversation has not gone far enough — or some people just were not listening.

To reiterate what critics have said over and over: There’s nothing wrong with a TV show depicting sexual assault, rape and other kinds of violence. But there are cheap, dumb, exploitative ways to do so, and there are intelligent, thoughtful and sensitive ways to do so.

Roadies” is perfectly oblivious to the fact that it has made almost every offensive mistake in the book — and added some new ones for good measure. I’ve been writing about TV for more than a decade (and I wrote about music before that, for what it’s worth), and in three decades of working in both realms, it’s been rare for me to come across something this jaw-droppingly ill-conceived.

To sum up: In the third episode of “Roadies,” a preening, abrasive critic named Bryce Newman (Rainn Wilson) gets flown out to a tour stop of the Staton-House Band. He’d written a vicious review that sent the crew, the band and members of its management into a tailspin, and the idea was to win him over by having him hang out backstage and watch the band play live.

Nothing about the depiction of this critic makes any sense. Music criticism is such a diffuse field right now that no single critic is that all-powerful; like much of “Roadies,” this plot point doesn’t seem as though it arose from the music landscape of 2016. The idea that Bryce’s review would get that much attention from the public at large is mildly laughable, and beyond that, much of the episode feels like a retread of a similar installment of “Entourage” which also starred Wilson as a blowhard blogger that a studio tries to buy off.

(If you think I have issues with this episode because I’m a critic, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Nothing makes me laugh more than a good roasting of a critic; we present a target-rich environment. Bring it on. Sadly, “Roadies” misses the mark here. Bryce is an ungainly mixture of predictable tics and behaviors; he’s not an interesting character, let alone a fully formed human being.)

Not long after he arrives, a member of the road crew, Wes, slips a powerful hallucinogenic drug into Bryce’s coffee. This meticulously planned drugging is done by a member of the crew who we are encouraged to think of as a lovable, creative goofball who just has the band’s best interests at heart.

Enter Natalie, an obsessive fan of the band, who’s also planning revenge because she’s angry about the bad review. After he’s drugged, she gets him alone in a backstage room. She climbs on top of him and sexually assaults him. It’s important to point out that there is no way he can consent to anything that happens to him, because he has been drugged.

It could be pointed out that there’s a reasonable chance Natalie does not know he’s been drugged, but that is really no excuse for what she does. He is obviously impaired, and she previously told a crew member that, if allowed to stay backstage, she would help them get revenge on Bryce. 

After the assault, a disoriented Bryce wanders around wearing only a robe, and despite the presence of dozens of crew members, none of whom stop him, he makes his way onstage, where he confesses to the audience that he is a fraud and gives a meandering speech about what a bad critic he is. When crew members finally try to stop him, he strips naked onstage while members of the crowd film the moment for posterity. The crew knows he’s been drugged, but they allow him to continue, and several of them laugh before he finally falls offstage, hurting himself in the process. He’s taken away in an ambulance. 

Yet the episode ends with Bryce depicted as being grateful for all that’s transpired. If you look at his satisfied face in his final scene, if you listen to his glowing voiceover, and if you watch the contented faces of the crew members when they read his second review — the positive one that he writes after a trip to the hospital — it is impossible not to conclude “Roadies” regards the way the story ended as not just acceptable, but altogether desirable.

The idea that they’re mollified by the second review, even though Bryce was being carted away in an ambulance when the band hit the stage and he never saw their set, is mystifying, but by that point, that’s the least of the episode’s problems.

One of the band’s managers, Reg, voiced objections a few times, and even advocates for Wes’ firing, but throughout the episode, another manager, Bill, tolerates what’s going on; his response is to generally shrug, sigh and defend Wes and the crew. In any case, Reg’s objections were generally dismissed and finally dropped (and he later hugs Wes). If there was a serious amount of remorse on the part of anyone else backstage, I missed it. 

All in all, the attitude of “Roadies” can be summed up in this way: It was all in good fun, and if anything went sideways, it was Bryce’s fault. That is classic victim-blaming, by the way.

Imagine that an episode of TV depicted a woman who was drugged by someone in the industry, and then assaulted and injured. Imagine that she was filmed while those events unfolded. Then imagine that the perpetrators of the assault are characters you’re supposed to root for, and that the survivor is depicted as being grateful about what was done to her.

It’s hard to imagine a showrunner doing any of that in this day and age, let alone all of it. 

The casual dismissal of a person’s autonomy and the disrespectful treatment of serious mental and physical violations are always troubling, but in a world in which Bill Cosby’s alleged actions are constantly in the headlines, a storyline like this is just profoundly wrongheaded.

While acknowledging that women are more likely to be the victims of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment, it must be said that none of what occurs on “Roadies” is okay because it happens to a man. Assault is still assault, and consent still matters. 

How a character views his or her actions can be different from how the narrative views those actions. Tony Soprano or Vic Mackey, for example, could kill someone and feel it was justified, but the narratives of “The Sopranos” and “The Shield” always regarded their actions and attitudes with skepticism, if not disgust, on occasion.

But in this episode of “Roadies,” the characters and the narrative view what happened to Bryce in the same way. It was just a bit of fun that got out of hand. Ultimately, as far as “Roadies,” and the characters are concerned, the crew came up with an effective strategy for dealing with dissent.

Talk about a jarring note: In his second review, Bryce thanks Wes and Natalie by name.

For a podcast on episode three of “Roadies,” go here

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