When it was first announced that Cameron Crowe would be writing a series for Showtime that focused on the backstage hijinks of a rock band, many of us went mooned-eyed envisioning “Almost Famous: The Series.” The 2000 movie — Crowe’s most personal work, and one of his best — took viewers on the road in the days of vintage rock and roll in a way that was funny, emotional, and ultimately affecting. Roadies may share some of those same desires, but it falls short of executing them in a meaningful way. Sometimes you need more than a cool shot and a great song. You need an actual plot.
The roadies themselves consist of broadly drawn figures as Luke Wilson’s Bill and Carla Gugino’s Shelli, who are the de facto mom and dad of the tour in their tandem managerial roles. But Wilson’s natural charm falls flat when it comes to his skirt-chasing character, and Shelli’s personality is never very well defined. And while Shelli is married to a man she never sees, she and Bill aren’t able to have even one scene together without someone making a comment about them seeming like they’re together. Because they’re perfect for each other but …! Yeah, we get it.
The real series lead is Imogen Poots as Kelly Ann, a serious young gaffer who wants to leave the crew and go to film school, but ends up being drawn back in once she feels like she’s not only being heard, but that the music means something to her again. Her brother Wes (Colson Baker), guitar tech Milo (Peter Cambor) and sound engineer Donna (Keisha Castle-Hughes) are each more a collection of quirks than actual people, though Rafe Spall’s financial overseer Reg Whitehead is the series’ sole bearer of charm, playing a bumbling antagonist who slowly integrates into part of the group.
Dispensing with the freedom a cable series affords (where viewers are often already expecting to invest for a few episodes), Roadies’ premiere is filled with clunky exposition, and plays out like a mini-movie whose emotional beats are told, but not earned. It’s a problem the series continues to have, where the too-precious dialogue grasps the audience’s hand to point and tell us how we should feel about certain characters or couples, rather than giving us a reason to care in the first place.
Each episode of Roadies opens in a new city, features a “Song of the Day” during setup (complete with the title and artist shown on screen), as well as a new infusion of backstage drama involving the ever-rotating opening band. It all plays into a very formulaic approach to the storytelling that, instead of being comfortably familiar, feels forced and bland. The headliner, Staton-House Band, is hardly shown at all — there’s no sense of their music, or that the roadies (who profess to love them) ever have any interaction with them. Are they not the raison d’être for this whole operation?
The thing about Roadies is that the elements of a great show are all there (humor, drama, romance), but it never quite comes together. There are some funny moments, mostly from Ron White’s over-the-top Phil, who is jettisoned from the series pretty early (though his spirit lives on), but the show doesn’t seem confident enough in its core characters to let us get to know them better. Instead, the third episode is almost entirely dedicated to Rainn Wilson’s odious music blogger character — with a lovely reprieve by the advent of Lindsay Buckingham (though both feel like little more than stunt casting) — and concludes in a way that pushes to be emotionally satisfying without actually making any sense.
There are some cursory moments given over to technology and social media (as flippantly as emojis suddenly appearing onscreen), but with Roadies being set in the present, it seems like a missed opportunity to dig in to the role of the internet in the way music is experienced and has changed. In many ways, the series feels out of time; its aesthetic is vintage though its location is in the present. It’s nostalgic without actually taking the dive into a different time period (except through its soundtrack). It’s nowhere near as flashy or bombastic as HBO’s colossal flop Vinyl — in fact, nudity is occasionally shoehorned in as if to not waste the fact that it’s on a premium channel — but it’s also not nuanced enough to be interesting to viewers who thrive on complex, compelling stories.
In the third episode, Lindsay Buckingham tells Bill that “this tour is like a Fellini film crossed with The Monkees.” It feels like exactly what was said in the pitch meeting for the show, and yet, it ultimately doesn’t come close on either count. Overlooking logic in favor of sentiment, the series never gives its viewers the freedom to suss out its characters naturally, or gives much of a reason to stick around for the rest of the tour.
Rating: ★★ Fair — Only for the dedicated
Roadies premieres Sunday, June 26th on Showtime.