First episode impressions: ‘Roadies’ (TV review)

Showtime publicity photo

“Roadies” (10 p.m. Eastern Sundays on Showtime), the new series from Cameron Crowe, feels a little more like “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” or “Love Monkey” than it feels like “Almost Famous.” The pilot episode has more bark than bite; however, it’s better than, say, Crowe’s second-rate “Garden State” “Elizabethtown,” and the fact that it’s about the same subject as “Almost Famous” might allow him to recapture a bit of that old magic in upcoming episodes.

For now, “Roadies” is all over the place. It has way too many good actors and it’s too good of a premise to be outright bad, but for whatever reason, it has more of the obnoxious, talky vibe of the aforementioned TV shows than it does the ephemeral, magical vibe of Crowe’s best and most famous movie.

We meet the advance road crew for an up-and-coming rock outfit called the Staten House Band, who in the first episode open for the Head and the Heart. Whereas “Almost Famous” was set in the 1970s and chronicled Crowe’s time as a young journalist through rose-colored glasses, “Roadies” is set in modern times, when there aren’t as many successful rock tours. Roadies can’t stay insulated from that economic reality forever.

In the pilot episode, rumors filter down that a bean counter (Rafe Spall) is coming to visit the outfit as it sets up for a New Orleans arena show. Through walk-and-talks from the Aaron Sorkin playbook, Bill (Luke Wilson) and Shelli (Carla Gugino) alternately worry about where the ax might fall, trade a few sardonic barbs in the fashion of ex-lovers who still like each other, and oversee the stage, light and sound preparations, although we don’t get specifics of that; it’s just what’s going on in the background. Although they talk a good game about getting out of the biz, Bill and Shelli are roadie lifers.

They’re all lifers, actually. Lighting electrician Kelly Ann (Imogen Poots) talks an even bigger game about getting out and going to film school, but then decides to stay. She’s inspired by Phil (Ron White), who turns out to be the guy who gets fired – and with good reason, as he was apparently a thief and murderer. Everyone else sticks around, agreeing to contracts for less pay, but Phil really is a loss, because he gave great pep talks, and that’s not in Bill’s wheelhouse.

The showrunners are setting up an odd-couple romance between Kelly Ann and Reg, the bean counter, even though she hates his guts at this point, as Dreamers always feel about The Man. Also in the mix are Kelly Ann’s twin brother, Wes (Machine Gun Kelly), who gets canned (and has his heart broken) by Pearl Jam and joins this crew. Luis Guzman is bus driver Gooch, and a handful of other characters don’t make an impression after one episode.

Natalie (Jacqueline Byers) is worth noting, though, as she’s like a Band Aid except that she’s not welcome by the musicians — at least not by the Staten House Band, which has taken out a restraining order against her. She uses sex to bribe one of the crew and get into the arena, and as she hugs and fondles the musicians’ clothes and microphones in their dressing room, she’s like a particularly sad and mentally unstable Band Aid.

Still, even as the roadies call security kick her out, they do so with a vibe of sympathy. That’s one thing that works in “Roadies”: everyone seems to like, or at least tolerate, the others who share their world. While it is a bit soapy in the way it emphasizes relationships, it’s not likely to turn into “Nashville.”

Everyone’s love of music – both the Staten House Band’s and music in general – is the overarching point of “Roadies,” just as love of music – Stillwater and music in general – is the point of “Almost Famous.” The soundtrack for episode one peppers in some Dylan, some Head and the Heart and some other music, with the song and band name shown at the top of the screen, similar to how MTV shows list the info at the bottom.

The line between “Almost Famous” and “Roadies” – the line between profound and wannabe-profound, as it turns out — is thin, yet the former works a lot better. For some reason, when these roadies talk about music, I feel the scripting of it. It’s not because of the actors, who are all good, but Phil is the only one whose passion for music feels genuine. The show is too desperate to convince the audience that these characters love music, similar to how Tom Cavanaugh in “Love Monkey” spoke entirely in music-history terms and the gang in “Studio 60” reveled in their superior knowledge of running a sketch show. I liked those shows to a degree, but I don’t appreciate the same vibe here.

“Roadies” wants to communicate how much these people live and breathe music, but when something is that intrinsic to your life, you don’t talk about it all day — or if you do, it’s in shorthand. It’s not an easy profession to portray to the masses. And yet, “Almost Famous” pulled it off. That movie breathed more, and allowed the soundtrack to be more of a natural part of the story, while basically two characters (the kid and Lester Bangs) talked about their love of music and for everyone else, it was merely implied.

“Roadies’ ” attempts at organic comedy don’t land. The showrunners think just showing roadie-specific situations is enough for a laugh, but it’s not quite. Bill has a habit of hooking up with younger hangers-on, Kelly Ann gets a pie – in the face! – as a farewell gift, and Natalie gets chased around the arena in an oddball juxtaposition against the concertgoers filing in. I barely took it all in with a “Ha” – the trademark line of both Bill and Kelly Ann – let alone with a smile. By contrast, I have a permanent smile on my face when I watch “Almost Famous.”

I’m not going to ax “Roadies” after one episode, because if Crowe is going to bounce back, it’s going to be with a show about his favorite topic. Still, if it doesn’t work its way out of its morose soap-opera/obnoxious music-lover vibe soon, “Roadies” is going to be sadder than a rejected Band Aid, and not in a good way.