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?”