Four years after fighting his last fire on “Rescue Me,” Denis Leary returns to cable TV this week to re-ignite his career with “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll,” a slick, smart vanity project that should burn out his creative midlife crisis before it fades away.
Leary, who also serves as writer and sometimes director, stars as Johnny Rock, a post-punk has-been faced with the choice of bankruptcy or bartending school. He’s one step away from joining a New Jersey cover band called Non Bon Jovi when he accidentally hits on his own daughter in a Brooklyn bar and changes his fortunes forever.
Once he stops reeling from the news that the gorgeous, grown-up Gigi is his long-lost offspring, she announces, “I need you to help me get famous.” Turns out, Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies) doesn’t need Johnny to make up for lost Daddy time (or so she says). She just wants to sing with his old band.
Twenty profanity-filled minutes at a time, alongside the emotional drama of Johnny and Gigi building a tenuous bond, “Sex&Drugs” tells a classic Getting the Band Back Together tale. Gigi wants to make a demo that will pair her vocal talents with the roots rock sound of the Heathens, the New York-based act Johnny led to the edge of success before a dramatic flame-out in the early ’90s.
The Heathens, living up to their name backstage out of general principle, tried to emulate the Clash and the Who but ended up falling on their faces Sex Pistols-style, breaking up the week of their debut album release.
Leary’s Johnny Rock even looks a bit like a ginger-haired Johnny Rotten in the show’s mockumentary footage of the Heathens’ heyday, when they were playing at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. But most of the show is grounded in the present, where the Heathens are more leathery and wrinkled than their vintage bomber jackets.
John Corbett, one of the few actors-turned-musicians who doesn’t embarrass himself onstage (cough, Johnny Depp, cough), stars as Flash, the band’s still-sexy journeyman guitarist who was Johnny’s biggest competition for writing credits and groupies back in the day.
Gigi grew up in Ohio listening to that record of nihilistic, gritty anthems with titles like “Don’t Wanna Die Anonymous.” She’s a talented singer with her nose in her smartphone but a good head on her shoulders, and with seed money from her mom, she’s taking her first shot at stardom.
Meanwhile, just as the Heathens’ triumphant reunion show in Belgium is Johnny’s last chance to command cheering crowds and demand diamond-encrusted bottles of vodka, “Sex&Drugs” is probably Leary’s last chance at leading man status. Knowing that his earnestly-still-cool persona borders on the ridiculous on both sides of the camera, Leary makes the clever choice of knocking this latest character down every chance he gets.
“Dave Grohl stole my aura,” he whines. Along with Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs, Grohl is one of the first of the show’s many cameos, asserting in a “Behind the Music”-esque recording studio interview that “Honestly, if it weren’t for the Heathens, I don’t think there would have been a Nirvana.”
Along with the guest stars, Leary’s name-dropping dialogue is begging to cuddle up in the laps of serious rock history fans. You don’t have to know that Paul Simonon sang lead on the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” to enjoy “Sex&Drugs,” but it helps to know who Simonon is. When Johnny sits down at the piano to play his sarcastic ditty “Radiohead Meets Morrissey,” it’s not going to be as funny if you’ve never heard of the Smiths.
The show also manages to make light of the music industry’s drug problem without glamorizing it. Watching Johnny rub his face on a dirty carpet while advising “There’s always blow in the rug!” isn’t going to increase coke sales. An early episode focuses on Gigi’s efforts to get her dad clean for a few weeks, an idea he scoffs at.
“John Lennon — high! — wrote ‘Imagine,’ and then ‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘Revolution.’ John Lennon — straight! — on his last album, he wrote a three-minute song about baking a loaf of bread,” Johnny sputters. “It’s called sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll, you know, not yeast and water and dinner rolls.”
It’s classic Leary standup, but whether he’s sober or drunk, keeping Johnny off stage is a good goal for the Heathens — and for the show. Leary is better at writing rants than rock lyrics, and it’s Gillies, who made her name as a teenager in Broadway’s hit musical “13,” whose talent is really on display.
Getting back into the music biz means reopening old wounds for Johnny and his crew. The Heathens’ bass player still feels overlooked, and it doesn’t help when no one will listen to his rock opera about the Irish potato famine. The drummer mainlines pizzas instead of heroin.
Longtime companion Ava (Elaine Hendrix) is jealous when she hears that Johnny slept with Joan Jett back in the day, but only because she got left out. “Did you even ASK if she’d be up for a three-way?” she hisses.
Does “Sex&Drugs” feel like an excuse for Leary to sit around emulating Keith Richards while maintaining a spiky haircut? Sure. But the show’s salty-sweet themes of loyalty and redemption contrast nicely with the vile comedic speeches Leary has made a career out of delivering.
“You missed the first 20 years of my life,” Gigi pleads, prying some black-market Adderall from Johnny’s hand. “It would be nice if you were around for the next 20.”
Can Johnny write songs without chemical assistance? Can he remain faithful to Ava for once? Can he sing onstage without seeing imaginary snakes and vomiting on the audience? Maybe not, but he can make us laugh or die trying.
To reach Sara Smith, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @SarawatchesKC.
Where to watch
“Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” premieres at 9 p.m. Thursday on FX.
Meet the Heathens
Flash, lead guitar
John Corbett (“Northern Exposure,” “Sex and the City”)
Johnny’s old songwriting partner has been amassing Twitter followers as part of Lady Gaga’s band and autographing the breasts of the barely legal. Holds a grudge against Johnny for sleeping with his wife.
Rehab, bass guitar
John Ales (“Spy Hard,” “The Nutty Professor”)
He got his nickname by popping in and out of drug treatment centers. Now he’s popping pills by the handful. Holds a grudge against Johnny for sleeping with his fiancee.
Bam Bam, drums
Bobby Kelly (“Louie”)
After losing all his hair, he now self-medicates with gluten-free tater tots. Lately he has been touring with the Pogues. Holds a grudge against Johnny for snorting all his Vicodin.
Ava, backup vocals and ukulele
Elaine Hendrix (“The Parent Trap,” “What the Bleep Do We Know?”)
She becomes a mother figure to Gigi after Johnny’s other girlfriend leaves town rather than play house. Holds a grudge against Johnny for decades worth of indiscretion, even though she slept with entire hair-metal acts in the late ’80s.