Television loves families, and for good reason. No other medium better comforts audiences with images of steadiness and consistency. Whether bound by blood, work, friendship, or circumstance, TV families are there for each other through crisis, adversity, and casting changes.
Theoretically, then, Cameron Crowe’s aw-shucks, feel-good sensibility is a great match for television. But his new Showtime drama, Roadies (premiering Sunday, June 26), is too gentle and cornball to sustain interest, squandering a novel setting and talented actors on irksomely cute characters, exasperatingly naïve debates, and — like the just-canceled Vinyl — a cringeworthy, outdated reverence for rock as the ultimate arbiter of art and authenticity. Pop princess Taylor Swift is treated like she personally ordered the trampling of music by spectacle, as if visual appeal had nothing to do with the popularity of Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, and David Bowie. Meanwhile, Lindsey Buckingham — no stranger to publicity photos that exploited his very famous romance with Stevie Nicks — is verbally fellated at every turn as a master songwriter and a brilliant brand monetizer during his guest appearance in the third episode.
A collaboration between the Almost Famous director and executive producers J.J. Abrams and Winnie Holzman, Roadies pays tribute to the people who “make the show happen,” according to the Tom Petty epigraph that opens the series. Housed in close quarters and isolated from other people, the family that forms among the technicians and the troubleshooters as they travel from city to city, month after month, is an organic one. When priggish money man Reg (Rafe Spall) joins the tour to see which of the behind-the-scenes crew he can send home to make the band a few extra bucks, the roadies unite in their rancor against him.
And that’s about where the drama’s naturalism ends. Half of this under-plotted, overwritten drama plays like a lazy romantic comedy, with adrift tour manager Bill (Luke Wilson) and married production manager Shelli (Carla Gugino) denying their feelings for each other. (Don’t feel too bad for Bill; he’s dick-deep in a pile of naked women much younger than him.) And Reg is destined for skateboarding sprite Kelly Ann (Imogen Poots), an insufferable idealist who cries in the pilot over the fact that she doesn’t love the music of a band she hears almost every night as much as she used to. If Crowe cares that it was one of his films (Elizabethtown) that inspired critic Nathan Rabin to coin the dismissive (but highly accurate) phrase “manic pixie dream girl,” he doesn’t let on here. Open-faced and prone to rants about raisins, Kelly Ann is so aggressively adorable she might as well be a singing teddy bear.
In between falling slowly, the crew stamp out the small fires that naturally spark around so many combustible egos. But the episodic story lines — which songs to teleprompt; the lead singer kissing his fingers as a new, cheesy sign-off; the arrival and accidental drugging of a cartoonishly self-important music critic (Rainn Wilson) — contribute little sense of urgency. After the firing of roadie patriarch Phil (Ron White), Bill struggles to gain control of his crew, which includes fake Brit Milo (Peter Cambor), self-appointed tour pharmacist Wes (Colson Baker, a.k.a. Machine Gun Kelly), and blue-haired lesbian Donna (Keisha Castle-Hughes), whose few lines in the first three episodes all revolve around being a lesbian. (Her never-seen girlfriend makes her come a lot, OK?) Donna is most emblematic of the spirit of faux-inclusivity that prevails despite the show’s mission to make the band’s family ours: Any character who deviates from boomer-centric rock reverence or the restrictive model set by the most generic, straight white rom-com is tokenized and quietly robbed of an inner life. Crowe’s calculated inoffensiveness backfires on him again: His reliance on tropes we’ve seen time and again, even from him, makes Roadies just another cover band.