Generally speaking, Denis Leary plays the same character over and over, and he plays it well. The Leary guy is abrasive, gritty, coarse, rough, and other qualities that are often ascribed to sandpaper. With a caustic glint in his eye, he tends to go on breathless rants — the same kinds of rants from his early MTV days, when he’d take down everything except, of course, Cindy Crawford and smoking. The Leary guy is quite effective at chafing his listeners, wearing them down.
There have been moments in the past 30 years when he was just what the doctor ordered for American culture — a voice of terminal cynicism when corporate record labels were taking over, a voice of anger and anguish in “Rescue Me” when 9/11 led to a decade of healing. In certain contexts, he is a perfect irritant.
In his middling new FX comedy, “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll,” he’s less of a cultural rebel and more of a putz. This time, the Leary guy is dealing with personal issues of aging, of having accomplished nothing authentic, of taking a last chance to find some meaning in his life on his own terms. There’s a touch of Nick Hornby about the show, which premieres Thursday at 10 p.m., with its 50-year-old teenager — a caveman, essentially — steeped in the latter days of a rock fantasy.
In some ways, Leary’s Johnny Rock in “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” is like his Tommy Gavin in “Rescue Me.” They aren’t morally grounded or sensitive fellows, but every once in a while they can surprise you. They have substance abuse problems, and women problems, too. But while Tommy was a hero on the job as a brave New York firefighter, which made him far less of a creep, Johnny doesn’t inspire compassion. He’s a narcissistic, never-quite-was, has-been rock star, a master of self-sabotage who firebombs every opportunity for success.
The former lead singer of an early-1990s band called the Heathens that broke up on the eve of their first major-label release, Johnny had a moment of glory that ended before the fireworks dimmed. Somehow, he has milked his cult fame for 25 years, but it’s wearing on him. Johnny has grown into a joke, not least of all visually, with a haircut that’s kind of “Aladdin Sane”-era David Bowie and kind of Rod Stewart. As his agent puts it, he looks like “Bryan Adams’s grandfather.” Leary fits the part well, with his wrinkles and his croaky voice. When the series opens, Johnny is broke, and facing a future of playing for a Bon Jovi cover band to survive.
Out of nowhere, a gorgeous 21-year-old daughter he didn’t know he had shows up and provides him with new options. She’s his deus ex machina. The shrewd Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies) has a thing for the 1990s sound and manipulates her father into rejoining with the Heathens and co-writing songs for her, since she’s hoping to become a star. It’s a silly TV-ized situation that, wisely, the show, created and written by Leary, dispenses with quickly. Before we know it, Gigi is calling Johnny “Dad,” and he’s forced to revisit his past and make up with the band members — in particular his songwriting partner, Flash (John Corbett), who’s now earning lots of money playing guitar for Gaga. (The Gaga “cameo” is hysterical.)
The pluses of the show include watching Leary have a good time and seeing the way the cast gels around him. The band includes Johnny’s ex-groupie girlfriend and backup singer, Ava (Elaine Hendrix), who is likable and kooky and game. She’s the Dee, from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” The others are also indelible. Robert Kelly, who plays Louis CK’s brother on “Louie,” leans on food for comfort and applies eyebrow pencil liberally. We also learn about the neuroses of the bass player, Rehab (John Ales), who’s clean and sober except for every pharmaceutical on the market. All together, they’re a dysfunctional family, with Gigi as the new kid going up against her father insult for insult.
The negatives include the odd misfire of musical styles that turns the Heathens into some kind of weird punk-meets-hard-rock-meets-hair-band amalgam that doesn’t ring true. Cameos by Dave Grohl and Joan Jett don’t help place the Heathens or Johnny in any realistic milieu. And Gigi, too, is hard to pinpoint, as she oversells Johnny and Flash’s old-style songs like a sassy “American Idol” contestant. The show lacks the kind of cultural savvy it really ought to have.
The songs, mostly written by Leary, are nothing special, even while the characters think they’re brilliant classics. Other TV series set in the music business — “Nashville,” “Empire” — have a lot more genre awareness and seem to make the characters’ enthusiasm believable enough. But on “Sex&Drugs,” even the costumes appear generic and unrealized. The show shares its title with the famous Ian Dury song, but then Leary has written his own bland song with the same title. It all seems to take place in some weird rock neverland. I’m hoping two forthcoming series about the rock world, Terence Winter’s Mick Jagger-produced HBO show and Cameron Crowe’s Showtime series “Roadies,” are more persuasive in terms of era and generation.
Without the spot-on industry details that elevate shows such as “Silicon Valley” and “Veep,” “Sex&Drugs” is not part of cable’s stable of knowing comedies. I will continue to watch, though, hoping that Leary and company can continue to build the characters’ chemistry into something special. The ensemble seems to be finding the right comic — if not drum-driven — beats.
Starring: Denis Leary, John Corbett, Elizabeth Gillies, Robert Kelly, Elaine Hendrix, John Ales,
Time: Thursday, 10 p.m.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.