Roadies is creator-director-writer Cameron Crowe’s love letter to rock music, a Showtime series premiering Sunday night that wants to summon up everything he felt for the music he used to cover as a Rolling Stone journalist back in the 1970s. And in that sense, the show might have worked better as a period piece, set in that era, because as a contemporary look at How We Groove Now, Roadies is really a jarring throwback to a time that has passed, and which now lives on primarily in the tours of classic-rock bands.
The show stars Luke Wilson and Carla Gugino as Bill and Shelli, the tour and production managers of the Staton-House Band, a group that’s constantly on the road, filling arena-sized halls. (The band name is a clever little joke on fleeting team-up groups like the Stills-Young Band.) The focus, as the show’s title suggests, is not on the band members but on the folks who make the band sound and look good: the equipment crew, the people who mix the sound, do the lighting, and provide the caffeine and whatever else is needed to get you through the night. Imogen Poots plays Kelly Ann, a roadie who’s torn between staying with the patchwork family she’s joined on this tour and becoming a filmmaker (in this sense, she’s somewhat of a stand-in for Crowe himself, who romanticized the road in a different way by writing and directing his 2000 film Almost Famous). It’s Kelly Ann who delivers the Crowe line that most defines this TV project: “I have to be a fan or I’m useless.”
I wanted to be a fan of Roadies. I really wanted to enjoy its full-throated positivism about the magic in the music that can set you free. I thirst for more TV that’s not dark or bleak or gritty and that suggests there’s something great about warm-hearted pop culture that unifies a large, broad audience. Alas, Roadies doesn’t quite get there. It’s got some very good elements, including the performances of Gugino, Wilson, and the comedian Ron White, who plays a gruff road vet named Phil. But the way the roles of Bill and Shelli are conceived, they’re friends who ought to be lovers but can’t be (she’s married; he’s an incorrigible horndog), and their banter might remind you of another Sunday-night twosome that we should have loved but couldn’t quite muster the stomach for: Will McAvoy and MacKenzie McHale in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom.
Of the three episodes of Roadies I’ve seen, the second is the best because its writer, Winnie Holzman (My So-Called Life), puts in genuinely funny details about onstage rockstar vanity and offstage bits about the uselessness of raisins. The third episode of Roadies (in which we’re back to Crowe as author) is by far the weakest, mostly because it succumbs to a flaw in Crowe’s arsenal going all the way back to the start of his career: He’s never understood what a critic does. Rainn Wilson guest stars as Bryce Newman, an online music critic who we’re supposed to believe has 330,000 regular readers of his blog, who can bring the roadies to rage and near-tears when he pans the Staton-House Band, and who wields such power that management thinks damage control must be done. “Win this man around… treat him like a king, kiss his ass,” underlings are instructed. I get it: Bryce Newman is supposed to be a caricature of a pretentious critic, but for the joke to work, it has to be rooted in something resembling a realistic atmosphere, and even in the heyday of rock criticism, no single figure ever commanded such obsequious respect. It’s far more likely that a bad review would prompt furious contempt and insult from the panned musician.
As Rolling Stone’s not just boyish but genuine-boy reporter, Crowe wrote reports from the road about touring with acts like the Eagles, Yes, Led Zeppelin, and Linda Ronstadt, musicians who frequently had mixed-to-negative reactions from critics but whom Crowe extolled effusively. (It’s always baffled me that Crowe’s moist depiction of the dry-eyed critic Lester Bangs in Almost Famous was so highly praised — were it not for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s flinty performance, this would be a Lester few of his colleagues would have recognized.) Roadies exists in a world in which (and I quote) “Everyone loves Dave Grohl” and the little bully-manager Irving Azoff is invoked as a god among men. I should add, however, that the third episode does feature a wonderful appearance by Lindsay Buckingham, who sounds and looks great, and I only wish more people looked at him as worshipfully as Crowe has his cast do while Buckingham is playing his guitar.
With HBO’s abrupt plug-pull on the second season of Vinyl, Roadies becomes the weekend’s new premium-cable music drama. It’s better than Vinyl — Crowe has a better, fresher idea in following the earnest people behind the scenes rather than the exploited stars and venal executives. But it still doesn’t feel like a satisfying hit.
Roadies airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Showtime.