In Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, which begins Thursday night on FX, Denis Leary plays a washed-up rock star named Johnny Rock. In the early ’90s, Johnny, who never met a drug he didn’t like, was the frontman for the Heathens, who broke up the day their first album was released. Twenty-five years later, Johnny is a rock asterisk, a minorly influential frontman who never made it because of his unpleasant personality and debauched lifestyle. Eking out a living on the final fumes of his fame but still a legend in his own mind, he makes eyes at a young woman at a bar. She knees him in the balls. She’s his daughter, Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies). She wants him to write her some songs, get the band back together, and make them both famous.
In short order, the band members, who all still hate each other, reunite. There’s the pompous Flash (John Corbett), who talks about the good life touring with Lady Gaga, while flirting with Gigi; Bam Bam (Robert Kelly), the drummer, part of Johnny’s entourage and a lover of junk food; Rehab (John Ales), the bassist, always scouring for pharmaceuticals; and Ava (Elaine Hendrix), a back-up singer and Johnny’s longtime girlfriend, and presumably, former groupie. Gathered together again, they bicker endlessly about the past, theirs as well as Keith and Mick and Bowie’s, arguing about a time when they were younger, the music was cooler, and the musicians were more badass—all while behaving as poorly as ever.
There is a version of Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll that is purely backward-facing. In it, Leary mourns the decline of rock ’n’ roll, the music that he loves, by acting out a fantasy in which he gets to be a rock ’n’ roller. (Forget, momentarily, that the early ’90s was not a great time for the rock he prefers, being the tail end of hair metal and the start of grunge, which Leary couldn’t care less about. Grunge’s leading men had a complicated and conflicted relationship to fame and its trappings, which automatically makes them very different from Johnny.) There’s something childish about the whole enterprise: Denis Leary is still pretty sure the coolest thing a person could be is a coke fiend who gets to bang lots of girls and go out on stage night after night to wave his guitar around like, you know. But we all have our questionable nostalgias. One man’s Bon Jovi is another man’s Full House.
But the show gets a lot more sour when it faces the future. This is not just an ode to the rock ’n’ roll that Leary loved, a period piece about the dying days of hair metal or the scene at CBGB. It’s a half-baked argument for the necessity of rock—music that isn’t, as Johnny puts it to Gigi, “Katy Perry bullshit,” but “something real.” But what’s so different about having Max Martin write your songs and having Johnny Rock do so, as he is doing for Gigi? Because Johnny Rock rocks? Because he does lots of drugs? Because little girls don’t like him? Is Imagine Dragons “real” because they use guitars? Leary is making a claim for rock’s authenticity not because—obviously—it is actually more authentic but because it’s what he knows and likes. Hip-hop, which has done a more than capable job keeping rock’s rebellious spirit alive, barely gets a mention. It doesn’t register with Leary, who is caught in the past while lecturing his audience about the present.
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is so deeply rockist, it doesn’t just adore rock music, it adores the genre’s most ridiculous accessories. Johnny Rock may be an anachronistic failure, but he’s supposed to be cool, goddammit, while he struts around in a feathered hairdo better suited to a wannabe Bowie on Halloween. (Besides, a fiftysomething musician still trying to make it in 2015 would be wearing skinny jeans and a fedora while drinking matcha, desperately trying to seem of the times rather than defying them.) Almost every episode hinges on the impossibility of domesticating a rock god like Johnny. In one episode, Johnny’s bandmates stage a light intervention, to make him stay clean long enough to write some songs. “I’m an artist, I do drugs to write songs,” he explains. And without stimulants, Johnny really can’t write. By the end of the episode, his bandmates are finding drugs for him. This joke, that the silliest, most destructive parts of being a rocker are essential, occurs again and again. Rockers do drugs. They don’t work out their psychological problems. They have absurd tour riders.
Real rock stars, the show says, sweat the trappings of rock stardom. They sweat the music less. Leary helped write many of the songs on the show, and they are not particularly good. The theme song, “Sex and Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll” (next line: “because I don’t want to die anonymous”), is catchy in the way of a buffed-up Ramones’ song—and Ramones’ songs are like circles. The very first person to ever draw one was a genius. Everyone who has done so since is in kindergarten. Gigi can wail, but when she takes to the stage singing her dad’s songs, she seems like no one so much as Lady Gaga in her NYU days: someone really talented who needs way better material.
Instead, everyone who sees Gigi—audiences, her agent, her bandmates, Joan Jett—proclaims she’s going to be “huge.” Gigi’s got a certain kind of swag, or as Johnny puts it, “big, brass ladyballs.” She’s driven and ambitious. She wants fame and is happy to use her body to get it. (She gets has her father to entice Flash back into the band by sharing a picture of his daughter’s bikini bod; the show’s Electra complex occasionally threatens to swamp the whole thing.) Everything about her reads as tough, bold, original, except for the fact that she is … essentially fronting her dad’s cover band. Katy Perry—and Miley Cyrus and Lana Del Rey, for that matter—might not be making classic rock, but they are way more rock ’n’ roll than that.
If Gigi was trying to take the band in a more contemporary direction, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll might get at the never-ending question of cool, which looks different from generation to generation, even as its spirit survives intact. But Denis Leary insists cool is only exactly what he says it is; only exactly the music he enjoys; made only exactly by the people he admires, from Mick and Keith to Bon Jovi. Which goes a long way toward explaining why rock music isn’t really that hip anymore. It’s a fiftysomething white guy’s idea of what’s popping.