When an Aaron Sorkin ensemble works, as it did on “The West Wing,” it’s a happy little jazz group, each person talking brightly at the others, a rhythm running under everything they say. When a Sorkin ensemble doesn’t work — think “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” — it can be like a classroom of little braggarts, a collection of precious, emotionally stunted people in love with whatever they say.
Unfortunately, the characters in “Roadies,” writer-director Cameron Crowe’s new Showtime series about a rock band’s road crew, come off like an irritating Sorkin ensemble. They’re not as overly brainy or robotic as Sorkin’s worst, but each tries far too hard to be a lovable know-it-all. They’re terribly self-serious, too, treating their work with all the high drama and self-importance of the Night’s Watch on “Game of Thrones.” And they keep reminding us that they cherish the romance of their touring careers more than we could ever possibly understand.
It’s too bad, and disappointing given the presence of Crowe, whose early involvement in the rock business as a Rolling Stone journalist is well known; it was the subject of one of his best movies, “Almost Famous.” He has experienced and observed the backstage world of rock tours, and the people who get each concert up and running; he might have been just the right person to tell this story. And he has written some wonderful characters, in “Say Anything” and “Singles,” long before he succumbed to a mediocrity streak with the likes of “Aloha.” But “Roadies,” with its cutesy characters, doesn’t bring him back to his early glory so much as remind us how far he has drifted from it.
Crowe’s bona fides do show in “Roadies,” in the elaborate backstage settings and in the way they’re filmed as a kind of amusement park ride. Along with the fact that the show takes place in a fascinating and unusual milieu for TV, those backstage moves — as the opening bands perform at sound check, as the skateboarding assistant glides by all the lighting and guitar techs — are fun to watch and at times transporting. They leave a bit of hope that perhaps the writing will get better across the season and become a worthy counterpart to the show’s atmosphere and technical aspects.
Crowe also fills the show with good music, even while we never hear the musicians whom these roadies support, the fictional Staton-House Band. Crowe, who has been behind a few rousing and classic music-based movie scenes, including John Cusack’s boombox moment in “Say Anything” and the group sing of “Tiny Dancer” in “Almost Famous,” delivers beautifully on that score. As with the just-canceled “Vinyl,” HBO’s look at the rock business, the music is not the problem. The soundtrack begins with an alternate version of Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” and continues from there, with strong performance sequences by Reignwolf, The Head and the Heart, and other real-life musicians who open for the Staton-House Band. At one effective point in the second episode, the super-busy roadies become transfixed by Reignwolf’s sound check and stop working to listen.
The central figure in all this is Bill, the tour manager. He’s played by Luke Wilson with a flat, everymanish personality — in one of the show’s tonal disconnects, he’s doing Jimmy Stewart in a raunchy rock world. Bill is having an age crisis, and his remedy is to hook up with younger women, one of whom, naturally, turns out to be the daughter of a powerful promoter. There’s nothing mobilizing about the guy, and you wonder if he’s getting ready to leave life on the road. But everyone seems to respect him, particularly the tour’s production manager, Carla Gugino’s Shelli, who is his work wife — a fact that is reinforced over and over again. These two are clearly meant for each other, but they’re willfully clueless about it.
Bill and Shelli are the surrogate parents to the show’s summer-camp-like gang, which includes the techy Milo (Peter Cambor), the self-involved Kelly Ann (Imogen Poots), and her hipster twin brother, Wes (Machine Gun Kelly), who serves as a manny to the lead singer’s bratty son. At the beginning of the series, which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m., Kelly Ann is leaving the Staton-House tour to go to film school. But we know better; like many of the plot turns on “Roadies,” we can see what’s around the corner — in this case, that Kelly Ann is addicted to life on the road. She is also a Staton-House freak, but not very convincingly.
One misstep has Rafe Spall on the tour as the corporate keeper of the bottom line, Reg. He’s the snippy British guy who’s always spoiling the fun to save money. The “Roadies” folks declare who they are over and over again — I’m the lonely tour manager, I’m the adorable but neurotic whiz kid — but perhaps none so much as Reg.
This is Crowe’s first TV series, and perhaps he is learning as he goes. Perhaps he will start to pull back on the sentimentality, rather than bashing us over the head with it. Perhaps he will sharpen the characters, instead of letting them become self-parodic and unsympathetic. TV works differently from the movies, obviously, and perhaps he will begin to appreciate the value of slow builds and characters who are faceted enough to explore at length. Perhaps “Roadies” will lose the rose-colored glasses and wear something a lot more torn and frayed.
Starring Luke Wilson, Carla Gugino, Imogen Poots, Rafe Spall, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Peter Cambor, Machine Gun Kelly, Ron White. On Showtime, Sunday at 10 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.