I can’t precisely recommend Roadies, Showtime’s new dramedy set in the world of big rock shows.
For one thing, the title is dishonest. Only a couple of these characters are actual, honest-to-goodness roadies. Most everybody else is in management, and there’s nothing less rock 'n’ roll than being in management.
For another, every time the show hits a groove, it tosses in one or two elements that are just too much and clash with its nicely melancholy tone. (This is a show about being on the road that feels like it really understands the loneliness of being on the road. Sometimes, at least.)
The presence of an obsessive groupie frequently derails the show’s pilot, while the third episode features a rock blogger played by Rainn Wilson, who has more power than any music blogger has ever had in the history of the world. Both characters, broad and comic, clash with the show’s world horribly.
And rock concerts? Aren’t rock concerts so 20th century?
Finally, there’s a Native American character who might actually be magic. To be fair to the show, it might be trying to deconstruct this particular trope. To be less fair to it, it’s doing a terrible job of doing so.
And yet I will probably watch the entire first season of Roadies. And to figure out why, you have to look at who’s involved behind the scenes.
Cameron Crowe was once your favorite director
The creator of Roadies, making his first sojourn into series television, is Cameron Crowe, probably best known for the hot streak of his first four films: Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, and Almost Famous. Yeah, Singles hasn’t aged particularly well, but the other three are all feel-good classics, the kind of character-driven movies Hollywood too rarely makes anymore. (As if that weren’t enough, Crowe also wrote the script for the classic teen comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High — and the book it was based on.)
Since then, Crowe has seemingly lost his touch. His movies have vacillated wildly between too unlike himself (Vanilla Sky) and way, way too much like himself (Elizabethtown). All of his post–Almost Famous movies have their moments, but they often feel jumbled together from multiple screenplay drafts. Crowe simply has too much going on in all of them.
That suggests he might be a good fit for television, where having too many ideas is often a good thing, because you can unspool them over many episodes and many seasons.
And over the first three episodes of Roadies (all of which he directed and two of which he wrote), you can feel him settling into the new digs. The first episode, in particular, is expansive and lovely, particularly in moments when his camera just follows around Kelly Ann (one of the few actual roadies, played by Imogen Poots) as she goes about her day-to-day tasks.
Crowe has always had an appreciation for the appeal of ritual, and thus, each episode of Roadies follows roughly the same course, as the characters set up for the big show that night. They gather for a morning meeting, of sorts. There’s a moment when they play the "song of the day." And they make time for personal check-ins and the like.
The director is joined by a famed showrunner, who also saw her TV career peak in the ’90s: My So-Called Life creator Winnie Holzman. (If you haven’t seen Holzman’s more recent TV effort, Huge, go out and buy that DVD set. It’s wonderful.) Holzman’s touch is less in evidence here, but if she can keep everything focused on the characters, this show might figure itself out.
The sorts of cable-ready content that Showtime is known for — the swearing and nudity — aren’t deployed poorly or anything, but they do clash with the show’s wistful tone. And it took me a few episodes to accept laconic star Luke Wilson tossing out Crowe’s trademark hyper-verbal dialogue. But Crowe brings plenty to his new medium, and Holzman’s personal touch adds even more. And that, ultimately, is why I’ll keep watching Roadies.
This show has an easygoing feeling TV has been lacking
Now, I’ll again state that the three episodes of Roadies I’ve seen don’t quite work. But they’re close enough that I’ll keep watching for one very big reason: There really isn’t another TV show that feels like this right now.
By that I mean that this is a drama, but it’s one where the stakes are small, where the things that hang in the balance are, say, a marriage or a job or future potential. It’s built atop the sorts of smaller conflicts that all of us will face at one point or another, but it also doesn’t try to overplay their importance. Nothing here is life or death.
Its lonely, wistful feeling, instead, elevates those struggles to feel like the characters’ dreams are slipping away from them. Those enormous arenas they enter never feel like home; they always feel like weird pit stops on a long trip to nowhere.
In short, I like the vibe of Roadies, which in its best scenes really does feel like Crowe and Holzman got together and made a show combining the best parts of their previous work.
That sense comes only fleetingly, and far too infrequently, but every time it arrives, I find myself smiling at what the show is trying to pull off.
Obviously, this series will not be for everyone. But I’ve watched much worse shows for far less than the potential on display in Roadies, and I’ve seen far more troubled productions pull themselves together after far greater numbers of episodes than three.
Roadies isn’t all there yet, but it’s trying something different. Isn’t that worth giving a spin?
Roadies debuts on Showtime at 10 pm Eastern on Sunday, June 26. You can watch a version of the pilot that’s been edited to remove some of its adult content on YouTube.