If the recent cancellation of Vinyl’s got you down, a new music-industry drama is here to alternately delight and exasperate. Vinyl was a coke-addled mess, hopped up on sensationalism and spectacle, but Showtime’s Roadies, which premieres Sunday, is more like a peripatetic stoner: charming at times, but for the most part frustratingly unfocused. Worse, it reproduces the kind of institutional sexism that runs rampant in the music industry.
Created by Cameron Crowe, Roadies explores the backstage shenanigans of the crew of the fictional Staton-House Band. The show stars Luke Wilson as tour manager Bill Hanson, an amiable man-child with a penchant for hooking up with younger women — although he’s clearly meant to be with production manager Shelli Anderson (Carla Gugino), whose husband is a crew member on Taylor Swift’s tour. Imogen Poots plays rigger Kelly Ann, who swerves through the arenas’ cavernous backstage areas on a skateboard, clad in a uniform of ripped jeans, T-shirt, and a red bandana wrapped around her messy-yet-effortlessly-chic blonde hair.
Crowe, who directed the first three episodes and wrote two of them (the second is written by executive producer Winnie Holzman, creator of My So-Called Life), adequately captures the lure of life on the road. Zippy montages of the roadies putting together the stage, rigging the lights, and stringing guitars announce the crew’s arrival in each new city. The best thing the show has going for it is its soundtrack, a mix of old songs and new that, like Crowe’s Almost Famous, help convey the characters’ affection for the band and one another.
There’s not much plot to speak of. Each of the first three episodes takes place in the hours leading up to the big show, with various low-level crises taking up the crew’s time: Bill needs to book a new opening act; Shelli can’t find time for phone sex with her husband; a banned groupie finds her way backstage. It’s all fairly low-stakes, which in a way is refreshing — no one’s murdered, and so far, no one has a drug problem.
But that breezy tone makes it hard to care too much about this world, especially since its characters are so sketchily drawn. The first episode appears to set up a conflict between the stagehands and a new financial advisor, Reg Whitehead (Rafe Spall), who admits he’s never worked with a band. He immediately pisses off the crew when he fires their beloved road manager, Phil (Ron White), and announces his intentions to “protect the brand.” “Maybe a brand isn’t a brand,” Kelly Ann protests. “It’s a feeling. Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix didn’t die to become a crop top at Urban Outfitters.” (Nobody tell Kelly Ann she sounds a lot like a famous fictional advertising executive: “You are the product. You feeling something.”)
Reg promises to usher in a new belt-tightening era, warning, “The old way is gone.” But the character quickly blends in with the rest of the crew, as if Crowe were afraid to make him a true villain at the risk of spoiling the rest of the cast’s good time. The obvious gesturing toward a romance between Reg and Kelly Ann — their straight guy/ wild woman dynamic is reminiscent of Cameron and Joe’s relationship on Halt and Catch Fire — would hold more tension if Reg didn’t seem so eager to please his scruffy new employees.
The show’s real will-they-won’t-they relationship is the one between Shelli and Bill, who, again, are so clearly fated for each other from the start that any tension the couple might have sustained immediately sags. Shelli is basically the only character to call out Bill’s habit of sleeping with a different sexy young thing in every city they visit, which allows the show to sidestep any meaningful critique of Bill’s behavior. Instead, Shelli’s complaints read more like the bitter jealousy of a woman his own age.
That’s a shame, because Roadies could have been an opportunity to critique the music industry’s very real sexism. The pilot episode opens with Bill boning a young hot chick with nipple piercings, Kimberly (Cissy Ly), whose breasts are fully exposed for most of the scene. Later in that episode, we also see the bare breasts of Natalie (Jacqueline Byers), the aforementioned groupie, who has loud, exaggerated sex with a crewmember and then takes his backstage pass before deep-throating a microphone. Considering one of Crowe’s career-defining characters, Almost Famous’ Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), objected to the term “groupie” in a movie that came out a whopping 16 years ago — and that was set over 40 years earlier than the contemporary Roadies — this isn’t just a step backward. It’s a purposeful stride off a steep cliff.
Bill’s paramours are continually pointing out the age difference between him and them, which only seems to turn them on more: “You’re probably the oldest person I’ve ever fucked,” Kimberly squeals. “And I loved it!” Later, Bill lies in bed with another gorgeous young woman (no tits here, just ass!), who coos that he’s gotten better looking since she saw him a year earlier. Ah, to be a man.
The third episode contains a particularly off-putting plot about an influential music blogger (Rainn Wilson) who writes a negative review of the Staton-House Band. (We never actually hear the band play, which is probably for the best.) The crew invites him to attend the next show, where one member drugs him before Natalie strips him naked and steals his clothes. Do real-life roadies care this much when their bands garner bad reviews? Either way, the casting of sexual assault as a hilarious backstage prank is just icky.
Like Vinyl ’s troupe of middle-aged white dudes lauded as the saviors of popular culture, Roadies so far seems reluctant to critique the world it wants to depict in all its gritty authenticity. At least Roadies does a decent job spotlighting the music its characters care about so deeply. The opening acts are all real-life artists, and the third episode includes a particularly good performance of “Big Love” by Lindsey Buckingham. And I’m inclined to give a show that features both Little Feat’s “Oh Atlanta” and Jeff Buckley’s cover of Dylan’s “Farewell Angelina” on its soundtrack at least a few more episodes to get into its groove.
But if Crowe wants to convey the earth-shattering power of a great song — and the sense of belonging that a group of like-minded co-workers can engender — he’ll have to do more than take cheap shots at Taylor Swift. It may not be Crowe’s generation, but for a whole lotta people, she’s the one delivering those earth-shattering moments. At least when she puts on a show, she commands your attention. That’s more than I can say for Roadies.
Roadies premieres Sunday, June 26 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.