‘Roadies’ Series Premiere: Behind the Show, “Life is a Carnival”

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“Roadies” is the latest from writer/director Cameron Crowe, and marks his first foray into television. Perhaps wisely, he chose to stay firmly within his wheelhouse, as “Roadies” is a bit of a spiritual successor to my personal favorite film of his, “Almost Famous.”

For those who don’t know, that film was based on his past, real-life experiences working as a music writer for Rolling Stone magazine, a job he landed under somewhat false pretenses when he was just a teenager, and which sent him on a collision course with some of the biggest stars of the 70’s, including Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and plenty more where that came from.

As such, he went on the road with these bands, getting an often unfettered, no-holds-barred look at what went on backstage, and back in the 70’s, that was definitely an eyeful, especially for someone who started doing it at the ripe old age of 16. “Almost Famous” was a brilliant look at his misadventures, and if I’m being honest, I was sort of hoping for more of the same here.

Unfortunately, for better or worse, “Roadies” is set in the modern day, which is understandable, as Crowe wouldn’t want to tread ground he’d already been down before, but it also makes for a decidedly different kind of vibe as well. As anyone paying attention knows, things are a lot different now in the music industry than they were back when Crowe was doing his thing.

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For one thing, the record industry is in shambles, with most bands making their primary profit from touring, not album sales. On the plus side, it has put a lot of the control back into the hands of where it should have been in the first place: the artist.

On the other, it also means that bands/performers that want to survive also have to make compromises, often doing things past acts would have never dreamed of, such as relentless self-promotion and networking, these days often via the internet; also, corporate sponsorship and making artistic compromises to stay afloat that past rockers never would have stood for.

All of this could either make “Roadies” fascinating or a slog, depending on the approach, but after the crash-and-burn recent “Vinyl”- which I did enjoy, but was also highly erratic- it’s understandable that Showtime would want to hedge their bets by going present-day with it. But this is Crowe we’re talking about, so you definitely get the Dylan, Skynyrd, and Pink Floyd references along with the more obvious Taylor Swift, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam ones.

Likewise, the cast is made up of both seasoned vets and up-and-comers, assuring that there’s someone here for everyone to connect with. Whether or not this is enough to connect with younger viewers remains to be seen, but at least they’re not catering to, say, Bieber fans and the like, so it’s not THAT corporate.

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As you might guess from the title, the main plot revolves around the backstage antics of the road crew of an arena rock band, in this case, the fictional Staton-House Band. Though we only get to meet one of the members in this episode, and we don’t get to hear them at all, the general idea is that they’re a mid-level band that has had just enough success to get a little jaded and in a bit of a creative rut.

It’s this very quality that has led Kelly Ann (Imogen Poots, “That Awkward Moment”) to contemplate leaving the road to pursue her own dream: being a filmmaker. Accepted into NYU with a limited scholarship, she’s prepared to do just that and has one foot out the door when disaster strikes.

The company that the crew works for is in dire financial straits and cutbacks are in order, meaning lower pay, less perks and a potentially angry band to deal with as a direct result. To hopefully smooth the transition, they bring in British financial adviser, Reg Whitehead (Rafe Spall, “The World’s End”), but his emergence is anything but welcome.

It probably doesn’t help matters that one of his first orders of business is to fire the long-time man-in-charge Phil (“blue collar” stand-up comedian Ron White), who does not take things lying down, even going so far as to pull a gun on Reg. Thankfully, the others wrestle him down and keep Phil from committing what would apparently be yet another felony, as we find out later.

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After that ignominious introduction, Reg hasn’t exactly endeared himself to everyone, but then again, it’s not as if he’s there to make friends. He’s there to slash-and-burn and get rid of anyone who isn’t absolutely essential to the process, or is more trouble than they’re worth, as was the case with the beloved-but-troublemaking Phil, who was under investigation for selling off items in storage facilities owned by Katrina victims!

This proves all the verification that Kelly needs to go through with her plans, but one thing stops her: she actually gets through to the band, who, when they discover she’s leaving because she thinks they’ve gone stale, decide to mix things up, changing their set-list for the first time in over a year, including old favorites and new material alike.

Encouraged by the move, Kelly decides to stick around a little bit longer and give the road one last shot after all before abandoning it, potentially for good. Though she gets herself demoted a bit in the process, you can tell already she doesn’t regret it for a second, as life on the road has clearly already gotten under her skin.

That was really about it for the premiere, which was mostly just set-up- which I suppose is appropriate for a show that revolves around people setting up things. To be honest, there wasn’t much I didn’t see coming here: I knew the minute that Kelly announced her intentions to leave that she wouldn’t end up doing any such thing, just as I knew the moment they referenced her student film being a montage of people in movies running towards something that we were going to get Kelly doing the same, likely over a montage of just that, which is exactly what happened.

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It’s also obvious that tour manager Bill (Luke Wilson, “Old School”) and production manager Shelli (Carla Gugino, “San Andreas”), who used to date, still have feelings together that are unrequited and that they will likely end up acting on before the end of the season; that Kelly already has a bit of love-hate thing going with Reg; that sound manager Milo (Peter Cambor, “NCIS: LA”), who has a crush on Kelly, is doomed to be the “Duckie” of the show; and that the crew will continue to relentlessly clash with Reg’s “new” values.

So, yeah, it’s all a bit predictable, which automatically makes it less vital than “Vinyl,” which may have been erratic, but was at the very least, unpredictable. It was also a bit of a mess, which is the real reason I think HBO somewhat prematurely pulled the plug on it, after initially deciding to give it one more shot. I think the show might have been able to work it out, but too late now, obviously.

“Roadies,” on the other hand, like most of Crowe’s stuff, is total comfort food. You know how it’s all probably going to end, but it’s remarkably hard to actively dislike. The characters are instantly familiar and feel lived-in and well-thought-out, and Crowe certainly knows success is in large part due to casting, and this is one well-cast show, to be sure.

I’ve been a fan of the up-and-coming Imogen Poots for some time, in spite of that admittedly giggle-inducing name, since I saw her in “28 Weeks Later” and she makes for a highly likable heroine, as she rockets about the venue on a skateboard and takes care of business with aplomb, showing how she’s an essential member of the crew already, even if she doesn’t know it.

Imogen Poots as Kelly Ann in Roadies. Photo: Mark Seliger/SHOWTIME

Likewise, I’ve always been fond of the sassy Carla Gugino, who is one of those stars that has never quite gotten the recognition she deserves, but keeps chugging along with one interesting project after another, many of which I’ve quite enjoyed. (“Watchmen,” “Sin City” and the underrated TV shows “Karen Sisco” and “Threshold” come to mind.)

Wilson I’m a bit more on the fence about, but he’s well-cast here, as is Ron White, who knocks it out of the park, as the seasoned Phil- loved the look on his face when confronted with a kid who didn’t know who Ronnie Van Zant was, and his litany of credits when Reg fired him was priceless. “Roger Waters is a house guest of mine! Ronnie Van Zant was the godfather of my son!” And, like Kelly, I won’t soon forget what was under that hat! LOL.

Aside from erstwhile “Sand Snake” Keisha-Castle Hughes (also Oscar-nominated for “Whale Rider”), the rest of the cast are relative newcomers, though I’m somewhat familiar with rapper Machine Gun Kelly, who plays Kelly’s brother Jesse, and I have a vague recollection of Finesse Mitchell from “Saturday Night Live.” I’ve also definitely seen character actor Luis Guzman in a few things, notably “Boogie Nights.”

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Of the lesser-known cast, Jacqueline Byers (“Ascension”) certainly made an impression as the banned stalker Natalie, who you just knew was going to get in and wreak havoc, and did. I won’t soon forget the sight of her deep throating and then attempting to masturbate with the microphone that allegedly once belonged to Bruce Springsteen and was used in his famous “Dancing in the Dark” video, featuring then-future “friend” Courteney Cox. Yikes!

Indeed, this was racier than Crowe’s typical material, more in keeping with the antics of his first produced script “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” than anything he’s done since, save maybe the underrated “The Wild Life.” We began with an in-media-res sex scene with Wilson and another newcomer, Cissy Ly, which featured extensive- and unabashed, from the looks of it- full frontal nudity from the delightful Ly, whose interests include paleontology and T-Swift. #OldBones

There’s also Winston, as played by Ethan Michael Mora, who is the bratty child of the lead singer of SHB, a real-handful whose own interests include “weapons and sex” and who tells last-minute babysitter Jesse, “You’re fired, hipster assh*le.” Did I mention he’s like nine or ten? And that he bit his last nanny, causing her to run for the hills?

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It’s quirky fringe characters like these that keep the show from becoming all-too-predictable in a bad way, and instead a lot of fun. Perhaps needless to say, Crowe’s as-per-usual impeccable soundtrack doesn’t exactly hurt matters, either, including tunes from Bob Dylan, Pearl Jam and the “song of the day” by Frightened Rabbit.

There’s also a lot of “insider” humor, such as the bit about Mike McCready of Pearl Jam firing Jesse because he was “having too much fun” and how that reminded him of “all the fun he was no longer having.” (Crowe did a documentary about PJ called “Pearl Jam Twenty,” so he goes way back with the band, who also appeared in the excellent “Singles,” another Crowe flick with heavy rock ‘n’ roll leanings.)

The Taylor Swift bits were a lot of fun, too. “Another Swift boat attack,” bemoans Bill, when Shelli threatens to leave the tour and join her husband’s cushier environs on the much-more glamorous- and better paying- Taylor Swift tour. Bill also feels the age gap when the aforementioned Ly proclaims her love for Swift earlier in the episode, much to Shelli’s delight.

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So, in short, Crowe is solid as a rock as a writer and director, even as he risks the maudlin on occasion with cheesy lines in the vein of “Jerry Maguire” and it’s by-now infamous “You complete me” and “You had me at hello.” Oh, the cringe-worthy factor!

He makes up for it with stuff like “I live to destroy everything you came for” (from Kelly, after meeting Reg) and, perhaps most memorably: “I came so awesomely hard,” which ranks right up there with “Never stop f*cking me,” also from “Maguire.” (Even better is the call-back to it from Gugino later on, which was priceless.)

Could the show still go full cheese on us? Oh yes. Definitely, if that ending montage with Kelly running is any indication. But for now, the good outweighs the bad, and as someone who once lived with a roadie, I like the notion of a show about them and it rings true to me from what I know about the business, which is more than the average viewer, probably. Only time will tell if it goes the way of “Vinyl,” but for now, it’ll do.

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What did you think of the premiere of “Roadies”? Are you onboard with this crew? Or will you be getting off at the next stop? What did you think of the cast? Any favorites, as of yet? Any annoyances, overall? Are you a fan of Crowe’s previous work? Were you surprised to see J.J. Abrams attached to it? Sound off on this and more and join me for a check-in on down the line in the season!