There are few things more exhilarating in popular culture than seeing a true-born entertainer enter the public consciousness, and Americans have been obsessed with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson ever since he broke through as a WWE wrestler over two decades ago. He's an athlete, an actor, he can be funny, he can do action, he can be funny in action, he's great as characters and great as himself, and his movies make money. Oh and he's also maybe got his eye on running for public office? That notion has always been perched on the border of, to borrow some wrestling terminology, work and shoot, unsure of whether The Rock is genuinely interested in being President one day or just being the kind of boastful superhero that he's always been. Living in that mystery is one of the big elements of Johnson's new NBC sitcom Young Rock, which uses a hypothetical future Rock candidacy as the framing device for a comedic memoir about his life growing up in a wrestling family.
Series co-creator Nanatchka Khan brings with her a fantastic pedigree, having created the series Don't Trust the B-- in Apartment 23 and Fresh Off the Boat, both for ABC, but at least through the first few episodes, the guiding hand appears to be Johnson's, and he seems to be laying the smack down on the show's potential to be a great comedy. It's too bad, because there are some fantastic elements to build on here.
The idea is that the adult Dwayne Johnson is telling the story of how he grew up, with a pro wrestler father — "Soul Man" Rocky Johnson (Joseph Lee Anderson) — and his mom, Ata (Stacey Leilua), part of a legendary family of Samoan wrestlers based in Hawaii. Rock's early years are covered in three distinct eras, on three distinct timelines: at age 10, played by Adrian Groulx; as a wannabe-smooth high schooler, played by Bradley Constant; and as a new recruit to the University of Miami football team, played by Uli Latukefu.
Ten-year-old "Dewey's" timeline is by far the funniest and most compelling of the three branches, and it's the one most immersed in the fascinatingly particular subculture of 1980s pro wrestling. The real-life Johnson grew up among the legends of the business, and memorable names like the Iron Sheik, "Macho Man" Randy Savage, the Wild Samoans (Rock's uncles), and Andre the Giant all appear as characters, so if you have any kind of nostalgia for this era at all, this part of the show is absolute catnip. It's immersed in the pro wrestling world, a subculture with an ethos and a language all its own, with its "work"s and "shoot"s and who's going over and how you work the gimmick. The "f-word" around these parts is "fake," as in "wrestling is ___," a massive faux-pas that'll get you either knocked out or, best-case scenario, lifted up by the lapels by Andre the Giant. The elder Rocky Johnson is a charismatic hotshot who's more bravado than anything else, which fits well in the pro wrestling world, but makes him more than a bit wayward when it comes to being a dad. Ata is the more grounded, responsible parent, and while that dynamic persists among all three childhood timelines, it plays best against the colorful backdrop of the pro wrestling world.
By comparison, the high school and college timelines fall incredibly flat. There are a few good gags — including a running joke that everybody in high school assumes the massive Dwayne is an undercover cop pretending to be a student — but watching teenage Rock try to pick up girls or college Rock go on a bench-press binge to earn his stripes with the football team feels colorless compared to '80s Wrestling: The Sitcom. There's just so much potential for comedy amid that crazy world, making for looser, sillier, and more creative storylines. A lot of shows give us a cocky high-school boy making up lies to impress girls. Not a lot of shows deliver a battle royal set to Laura Branigan's "Gloria" that actually advances the plot. Certainly not a lot of shows are going to make Andre the Giant (played with great humor and sensitivity by former NFL player Matthew Willig) a featured player and an emotional anchor. This is the show we should be watching.
So why don't we get enough of it? Part of the reason seems to be that Dwayne Johnson really wants to tell his whole story, and he's being a (literal) politician about it. The frame story, which presents itself in every episode, is that it's 2032, and Dwayne Johnson (playing himself) is running for president. Which is something people seem to think may happen. (Public service: don't tumble down the rabbit hole of what Dwayne Johnson running for president against a non-incumbent in 2032 means with regard to whether this show thinks Joe Biden will get re-elected in 2024 — that way lies madness.) Johnson spends most of this framing story being interviewed by Randall Park, the actor playing himself, as an actor-turned-journalist (sure, why not?). Besides the fact that these scenes aren't all that funny, they also present the facade of Johnson wanting to tell a warts-and-all biography about himself in order to make the case that this big Hollywood star hasn't lost touch with his roots. Time and again, the Rock promises to tell the unvarnished truth — and in fact has a campaign manager constantly trying to change the subject — but all the stories about Young Rock make him look… great. He's a good son, a hard worker, a stand-up guy. His relationship with his father, the closest thing the show has to genuine conflict, feels constantly soft-pedaled in a way that feels quite understandable — Johnson's love and gratitude toward his parents is deeply felt and genuine — but it comes at the expense of any kind of real drama. Which would be fine if the results were funnier. Unfortunately, they're not.
The story of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is an undeniably fascinating one. Growing up in the heightened environment of pro wrestling, with a family legacy on both sides, Johnson's WWE career is a testament to how that legacy shaped his career. His early debut as "Rocky Maivia," a fresh-faced third-generation hero, who fans grew to despise for being force-fed a hero's narrative, only for Johnson to pivot into a smack-talking, cocky heel in reaction to those fans, only for that to be the persona that was embraced and brought him worldwide fame and fortune? That's a story! There are tantalizing glimpses in Young Rock of a pro wrestling sitcom that would really shine. Unfortunately it's being choked off by far more conventional stories that aren't nearly as funny or biting enough, and which play like... well, somebody running for public office. Which makes for a frustrating viewing experience, even if you can smell what The Rock is cooking.
Young Rock premieres on NBC February 16th at 8:00 PM ET.
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Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.