Ugh, I’m having a Newsroom experience.
Three episodes into the new Cameron Crowe dramedy Roadies, and all I can think about is how we’ve been down this road before. Here is another self-indulgent and largely out-of-touch cable drama from a different middle-aged white male who used to produce great work, a la Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. So far, Roadies isn’t as bad; Sorkin’s sanctimonious speechifying is replaced with “music is what makes the world spin ‘round, man” vibes, which are less toxic yet equally lacking in originality. But the biggest similarity is that they both come from auteurs who have created much-beloved works based on similar themes — Crowe’s Almost Famous and Sorkin’s The West Wing in particular — and now can’t find their way back to those glory days no matter how hard they try. And that’s the point: They shouldn’t be trying.
Crowe has out-Romanticized himself with Roadies. With Almost Famous, he captured the spirit of youth, coming of age, the early ’70s, rock ‘n’ roll, writing, journalism, being a fan, loving music — you name it. It’s an ode to a period of time in life everyone experiences and eventually loses. Here, he’s trying to find what he already captured about already losing. Crowe hits similar beats by following a group of roadies for a huge American band but without much focus and inspiration, but there’s no Kate Hudson muse to guide him and no real passion to stoke in viewers. All Crowe is working with are concepts, and those concepts are highly dated and sometimes clueless.
Enter this week’s episode, “The Bryce Newman Letter,” and the most egregious plot device yet that should send all Newsroom viewers into the fetal position as we recall the Don-mansplains-rape-to-a-rape-victim episode. In short: Rainn Wilson guest stars as Bryce Newman, a music critic who carries such cache that his tirade against the show’s fictional band that so infuriates the roadies that when Newman is invited by management to a show to mend fences, they set about to sabotage him. This includes drugging his coffee with hallucinogens, sexually assaulting him and stealing his clothes.
He ends up naked, on stage in front of thousands of fans, out of his mind and telling everyone what a fake he is. Fans in the crowd record it all. Most everyone in the roadies crew laughs. Reg (Rafe Spall, the best thing about the show) and the confusing ingénue, Kelly Ann (Imogene Poots), are the only ones who see the problems with this scenario. Newman falls off the stage and hurts himself, but the next time we see him it is as he is back in front of his laptop, contentedly writing another blog post about how he’d changed his mind about the band. He’s practically thankful for what happened to him. What a relief!
Except drugging someone — anyone — is not funny. Nor is assaulting them. Just because it’s a male and the scene is played for laugh does not make it funny. Having a victim be thankful for their assault is abhorrent. I have to imagine this episode aired for the same reason Roadies exists in the first place — because it’s Cameron Crowe. We love him! He means well. His work moves us, or rather moved us. The offensiveness of the whitewash casting in Aloha was a fluke, right?
Maybe. Or maybe he just no longer has his finger on society’s pulse and would prefer to stick to what he used to know rather than try to expand that worldview.
“The Bryce Newman Letter” is filled with other mystifying bits, foremost the notion that a music critic — that any critic these days — wields that much power and can show up on set making outrageous demands. The anti-critic theme felt off; of course critics can and should be skewered to good effect, but this one-dimensional villain out to destroy bands is laughable. It’s almost as hard to care about him as it is about Phil, the former tour manager for the band who is fired in the series pilot. Luke Wilson’s character is trying to live up to Phil’s legacy, a plight that is in no way compelling because we never got to see that legacy being built in the first place.
The episode ends with the roadies reading Newman’s new letter, all happy with their efforts and ready to face another day in another city doing another show. The life of a roadie is definitely interesting, and the state of the music industry these days should provide plenty of meat for a story. But Roadies feels like more of an excuse for Crowe to call in favors to musician friends like Lindsey Buckingham and film them performing, as he did in this episode, than to tell a great story.
Try telling us something new, Crowe. And never, ever try to tell us drugging and assaulting someone is a barrel of laughs. If you didn’t know that already — if you don’t want to branch out — well, make room for storytellers who do.
You can find Sarah Carlson on Twitter.