Despite the magnetism of its star/subject, Young Rock ends up little more than a sweet lesson of the week half hour.
Like any human being, I am predisposed to like Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock. The man is charisma incarnate, a shockingly charming person who has proven to have not just skill, but that ineffable something that true stars possess. So know I don’t take lightly what I am about to say.
I really don’t want him to be President.
Maybe someday, after he’s served in a State House, been elected to two terms as Governor, and I don’t know, worked as Secretary of the Interior or something. But not before then. Not, for instance, in 2032 with 11 more years in show business making a truckload of action films and none in politics. We did, after all, just survive an entertainment guy with zero political experience and while I’d never say Johnson resembles him in any other way, it is enough to make me gunshy.
So the immediate problem of Young Rock is that Johnson possibly being President is the backbone of the framing sequence. He has been nominated as the candidate for an unnamed political party—can’t show bias, of course—and is on the campaign trail. To signal he is a different kind of candidate, he has decided to tell reporters all kinds of stories from his past—specifically 1982 (played by Adrian Groulx), 1987 (Bradley Constant), and 1990-1992ish (Uli Latukefu). He’s not perfect and he won’t hide his less-than-stellar moments from the American people.
Ironically, while I don’t like the idea of the framing device, it’s also the only place to find laughs in the first two episodes. Johnson is his wildly charismatic self and Randall Park (also playing himself as a Barbara Walters-esque reporter who can’t stop reminding everyone he used to be an actor) is just the right mix of egocentric and obsequious to make things funny without breaking the premise. Sandy (Christopher Chen), Johnson’s publicist, adds a nice bit of flop sweat as the responsible adult in the room, urging his candidate not to share his years of shoplifting with the voters.
In the sixth episode (the only other provided for review), Johnson is now relating his stories to the press pool, with no Park is present. Even after adding Rosario Dawson to the mix, no laughs are present in the framing device either.
The flashbacks, which make up the bulk of each episode, tend to be gentle affairs, more interested in being sweet and teaching a lesson than in being funny. When paired with the framing device, Young Rock feels almost didactic. Johnson is here to teach you about what’s important in life and, wouldn’t you know it, he has a relatable anecdote from his past to illustrate the point.
That is not to say the past sequences come without their charms. Groulx, Constant, and Latukefu all are believable as the trinity of Young Rocks, with Constant and Latukefu resembling each other in body language and speech pattern very well. As Johnson’s father Rocky, Joseph Lee Anderson is winning in a way that underlines his connection to the show’s protagonist. His voice resembles our Rock too in a way that makes him feel believably like the patriarch of the Johnson family.
Young Rock feels almost didactic. Johnson is here to teach you about what’s important in life and, wouldn’t you know it, he has a relatable anecdote from his past to illustrate the point.
Wrestling fans will find plenty to delight in during the flashbacks, especially those in 1982. There we spend time with a cavalcade of classic wrestlers of yore, including Iron Sheik (Brett Azar), Andre the Giant (Matthew Willig), Randy “Macho Man” Savage (Kevin Makely), Sgt. Slaughter (Wayne Mattie), The Junkyard Dog (Nate Jackson), and more. It’s not funny, per se, but there’s a definite sense of play to the scenes that feature these stars of sports entertainment just hanging out with one another.
But there’s also a strange disconnect. Take the Iron Sheik: his past self is affable and easygoing. Compare that to his modern-day profane Twitter persona and try to puzzle out if it’s kayfabe or if the man has been changed with age. Casting a strange pall over these scenes is the knowledge of how several of the featured wrestlers died fairly young. It makes sense that a young Dwayne would remember them fondly, but sometimes it’s hard to forget how they end up. That can make losing oneself in the story difficult.
Johnson, alongside co-creator Nahnatchka Khan (Fresh Off the Boat, Never Trust the B—- in Apartment 23), has built an appealing, tender half-hour television show. Despite the premise recalling Everybody Hates Chris, it feels far more like the family sitcoms of the late ’80s and early ’90s. A Family Ties without an Alex P. Keaton, a Growing Pains with more money troubles. It’s the kind of show Young(er) Rock might’ve flipped on when not watching his dad grapple in the squared circle.
Young Rock hits the mat on NBC on February 16th at 8pm Eastern, 7 Central.