By James Poniewozik
July 14, 2015

When Denis Leary hit it big in the early ‘90s, he was as much rock star as comedian. He ranted about videos and R.E.M. in a leather jacket on his MTV interstitial clips; he took the stage with a guitarist and a pack of smokes, belting out his single “A**hole” in his standup special No Cure for Cancer.

So it makes sense that in his FX comedy Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll (premieres July 16), he plays a rock star who hit big in the early ‘90s. But the effect is less comeback tour than dad-band performance.

Here, the acerbic Rescue Me star plays Johnny Rock, once lead singer of The Heathens, who were legendary for about five minutes on the New York City music scene in the early Nirvana era and broke up the day their breakout album was released after he cuckolded his guitarist Flash (John Corbett). Now he’s a has-been, snorting anything powdered and seriously considering a job with a Jon Bon Jovi tribute band.

His luck changes, sort of, when a young woman he hits on at a bar turns out to be Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies), the daughter he didn’t know he had. She’s come to town with the idea, and the cash, to reunite the band—but with herself as lead singer and Johnny as her mentor. But that means luring back Flash–now a well-paid sideman for Lady Gaga–and it means Johnny checking his still-arena-sized ego.

The self-destructive egotist is a riff Leary can play with his guitar behind his neck. In The Job and especially Rescue Me, the mashup of comedy and pathos was erratic, but when it worked it was raw and bracing in a way more self-serious antihero series couldn’t achieve. But the old-man-meets-millennial comedy that Sex&Drugs sets up feels cranky and creaky. Gigi, you see, wants Johnny to teach her the ways of authentic rock: “I’m not shooting fireworks out of my tits. I want to sing real songs with real musicians.”

Sex&Drugs can be laceratingly funny about Johnny as aging rocker in denial (he’s still huge in Belgium!), but it shares his grumpy attitude that authenticity died with Kurt Cobain, his Manichean view (and Gigi’s) that music is a battle of real vs. phony, analog vs. digital, Joe Perry vs. Katy Perry. And if it’s not male vs. female, the women—like Johnny’s girlfriend Ava (Elaine Hendrix)—sing backup, unless, like Gigi, they prove their balls. (“Dad,” she says when Johnny writes a sensitive ballad, “that song sounded like something that Sting would write if he was living inside Sarah McLachlan’s vagina.”)

Johnny’s dinosaur act may be intentional; but the show’s references and rockumentary clichés are just fossilized. Besides Sting, there are jabs at David Bowie and Radiohead, making this the edgiest rock satire of 1993. There is a set piece about rock bands’ over-the-top greenroom requests (“Twelve filet mignons in a box, like meat donuts”), not to mention an actual “Did I just say that out loud?” joke.

In a show that has so much to say about authenticity, the details simply feel off. The Heathens were meant to have been edgy in the early ’90s–in an opening mockumentary, The Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli describes them as “If The Who f*cked The Clash and they had four kids”–but sound like a bar band. (Leary wrote much of the series’ original music.) And while the snide, lizardy Johnny comes effortlessly to Leary, Corbett, a comfy jean-jacket of an actor, is unconvincing as a difficult rock god. (It doesn’t help that the character names–“Johnny Rock,” “Flash,” the drummer “Bam Bam,” played by Louie’s Robert Kelly–sound like something from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon.)

For all that, the return to more straight-ahead comedy feels liberating to Leary, and at times the show hits on a real, productive conflict. In the third episode, Johnny watches Gigi nails a new song that he wrote, and he’s both moved and unsettled to see that his music may be better through her than through him. For a minute, Johnny the father overtakes Johnny the rocker–but when he gets a chance to steal the spotlight back, he takes it.

There’s potential here for a sharp sitcom about a man who’s kept aging but stopped growing. But too often Sex&Drugs shares Johnny’s arrested development, at the expense of both relevance and comedy. In one of his School of Rock sessions with Gigi, Johnny holds forth on how Keith Richards wrote “Satisfaction” while high, and he sees himself as the same kind of grizzled rock lion. But the refrain Sex&Drugs keeps singing is: “Hey! You! Get off of my lawn.”

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