“Roadies,” Showtime’s new drama about the hard-working employees of a rock band’s arena tour, rolls onto TV this Sunday with a long list of problems. The writing is clunky and often irritating. The acting is all over the place. The expository harangues are limitless.
It’s a chore to watch, with nonstop exaltation of the roadie life, the personal (yet ineffable) connection people feel to music and the relentless call of the asphalt. It’s one of those overwrought shows where people yell “And ANOTHER thing!” about nothing much. Think of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom,” only twice as insufferable and slightly less comprehensible.
In the third episode, “The Office’s” Rainn Wilson turns up as a stereotypically self-important online music critic whose opinions are cruel and yet possibly correct — almost as though “Roadies” is belatedly inoculating itself against reviews like this one. But there’s no getting around it: A dud is a dud.
This dud happens to come from filmmaker Cameron Crowe, whose credits include his memorable 1982 screenwriting debut, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” and his writing/directing of 1996’s “Jerry Maguire.” Crowe has been behind the scenes at some of the greatest rock tours ever, dating back to the articles he first wrote for Rolling Stone as a teenage journalist — a life story that served as the basis for one of his better movies, 2000’s “Almost Famous.” But Crowe has also gained a reputation for unevenness (to say the least), recently delivering movies so unremarkable and flat that he could have slid them under a door.
“Roadies,” which also bears a producing credit for J.J. Abrams, immediately plunges us into the world of the Staton-House Band (yes, that’s what they’re called) and the usually unseen workers who make sure the band’s tour moves on schedule. The tour manager, Bill, is played by Luke Wilson (“Enlightened”) and the production manager, Shelli, is played by Carla Gugino (“Wayward Pines”). They are equally stressed out and possibly in love with each other — it’s hard to tell who they are or what they actually do, even though they chatter constantly in dialogue that’s supposed to clue us in. The best they can do is play the roles of two actors who are failing to achieve chemistry because they’re too busy trying to make sense of their lines. Wilson seems especially wrong for the part.
A hopelessly uncool business manager, Reg (Rafe Spall), joins the tour in New Orleans with a mandate to curtail expenses. During a staff huddle he is promptly chewed out by an idealistic and annoying young rigger, Kelly Ann (Imogen Poots), who expounds on the ephemeral glory of being a roadie and how much the Man (whoever the Man is) will Just Never Get It. “Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix didn’t die to become a crop-top in Urban Outfitters!” she yells. So there. (In another episode, Kelly Ann delivers a diatribe against raisins: “Philosophically, I hate how people add raisins where they do not belong — stuffing, Cream of Wheat, salad. When will people learn that raisins are not the answer?”)
“Roadies” might make more sense if it actually were about raisins. As a drama set in the present-day world of rock-and-roll, it feels sadly out of date and lost in its own delusions of expertise. This is no big surprise, since it’s hard to think of any milieu that is less hospitable to the basic narrative architecture of television than the travails of the music industry. FX’s’ “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll,” which returns for a second season on Thursday, has literally listed all the alluring stuff in its title — and it’s still a bore. There’s also the recent problem of HBO’s lavishly made and recently canceled “Vinyl,” about a struggling record label in the 1970s, which viewers promptly handed back with a notable lack of interest.
Yet anyone who has attended a concert and had the good fortune to make it backstage can attest to the supercharged feeling of it all — the smells, the banter, the giddy groupies, the bacchanal, the proximity to fame and the constant exertion of labor. Why wouldn’t a show about this be compelling?
Because it can also be terribly dull, once one has at last donned a backstage pass; it has a way of undermining the magic. Crowe and his writers try to compensate by overloading the cast with oddballs — the guitar-tuner who cops a British accent; the mystically inclined chief of security; the obsessed groupie who keeps sneaking backstage despite a restraining order — but this only adds to the drag. They also seem to have made an artistic choice about limiting how much a viewer actually sees and hears the Staton-House Band.
The show instead dwells on the minor crisis of the tour’s inability to find and retain a decent opening band — these acts are played by real performers, including the Head and the Heart, Reignwolf and Lindsey Buckingham. You know they are actual musicians because “Roadies” stops what it’s doing so that they can play their songs and the characters can nod approvingly like it’s the Muppets’ old variety show. It’s an awkward blend of fact and fiction. Mostly it’s just awkward. The life-on-tour antics and details feel hammy and contrived; there is nothing similar to the easygoing vibe mixed with panicky momentum that Crowe conveyed in “Almost Famous.”
“Roadies” might do better to focus solely on its characters’ jobs for the first several episodes. Watching a band and its crew load in, rehearse, perform and load out should provide plenty to watch — rock fans who dig this process become like toddlers mesmerized by bulldozers; we don’t have to be convinced of the romance and wonder in it. Let it be fascinating all on its own and, soon enough, there’s a good chance the members of the crew will become just as interesting as their heavy lifting.
Roadies (one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.