TV TATTLE

It's hard to ignore the political implications of Dwayne Johnson's Young Rock

  • "Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson has not publicly ruled out a presidential run," says Melanie McFarland of the Dwayne Johnson biographical NBC comedy. "This is an understandable strategy from a man keenly aware of his popularity and the power of projecting the right image, which in Johnson's case is a sort of a souped-up man of the people. He's the chosen family-friendly hero of our times for precisely that reason, with some version of himself available and accessible to everyone....Setting limits on possibilities is precisely the opposite of Johnson's brand, and that's why NBC's Young Rock by its very existence may be the canniest commentary going about the perilous intersection of fame, personality and political power. It might be that or an inoffensive sitcom with big tent ambitions that takes a few episodes to organize its approach. Or it could end up being something media reporters look back on from 2032 with some measure of self-loathing for not recognizing it as a slicker replay of 2015, with NBC once again having been tricked into providing free campaign advertising for a guy mounting a charm offensive. The difference is this time the candidate in question is on the company payroll. This is a whole lot of forehead-furrowing paranoia to drape onto an otherwise harmless, heartwarming family comedy from Johnson and co-showrunners Nahnatchka Khan and Jeff Chiang, who worked together on Fresh Off the Boat. I'll also confess that some of this apprehension is for display only. Just as Johnson can sculpt and oil his powers of enticement with equivalent levels of care with which he treats his physique, it's only fair for writers to at the very least make a show of assessing of Johnson's motivations here. Maybe Young Rock is simply a The Wonder Years built for 2021 and purveying universally relatable life lessons in primetime. That it is also loosely based on the childhood of a real person with a gigantic fandom isn't original either, as anyone who's seen Everybody Hates Chris can attest. However, Chris Rock was never seen looking back on this pre-adolescent awkwardness during campaign stops in 2032, which is a lot closer than you may realize."

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    • Young Rock's four different eras are tough to juggle in the space of a half-hour broadcast network comedy: "Where Johnson is one of the few universally beloved celebrities — and genuine movie stars — we have today, he is perhaps one ingredient too many for his own autobiographical series, which tends to work best when it zeroes in on one of the incarnations of its title character," says Alan Sepinwall. "The chief creative voice here is Nahnatchka Khan, mining nostalgic territory in the vein of her last sitcom, ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat. That show was also inspired by the life of one of its producers, author Eddie Huang, who narrated his young alter ego’s adventures for a few seasons. When Huang quit over creative differences with Khan and others, FOTB ditched the voiceover altogether, trusting that its characters were well-enough established by that point to not require additional hand-holding or explanation. Johnson proves useful in the Young Rock pilot, which is framed as an interview he’s doing with FOTB star Randall Park, who is playing himself, working as a TV news anchor in 2032. The adult Johnson quickly establishes the players and stakes in each era, as well as the series’ chief theme. Rocky Johnson reminds little Dewey that every wrestler has to find and work their own gimmick, and politician Dwayne tells Park that his own gimmick turned out to be a simple one: 'Be me.' This is how Johnson has presented himself throughout his career as an entertainer. His genuine, down-to-earth nature is the key to his appeal. We believe that what you see is what you get with him, even if he’s built in rather fantastical proportions, like an aircraft carrier. Young Rock is meant to be a warts-and-all memoir — Rocky Johnson is shown as one degree shy of a con artist, and the teenage Dwayne shoplifts and tells a lot of lies to impress a girl he likes — but the guy in 2032 is so saintly that the framing device starts to feel less like a parody of politics than the subliminal launch of Johnson’s actual political career. And once Young Rock settles into one era per episode, the real Rock’s presence proves more a distraction than anything else."
    • The whole show is built on the idea that Dwayne Johnson should be president: "In theory, we’re only invested in these campaign trail confessionals because we want to see if it helps him win the presidency," says Ben Travers. "It wasn’t enough that people would be curious about what it was like for Johnson to grow up in a family of professional wrestlers, or move around the country so much, or attend one of the most sought after football schools in America. There had to be this extra political element tied to the show, one which he’s said in the past is a real option for him. You should know where this is going. Less than a month removed from our Reality TV President, it’s uncomfortable to watch another candidate be vetted for higher office via Hollywood staging. Too many family-friendly spins on Young Rock’s past hardships feel like they’re glossing over more inappropriate behavior, or harder edges, or more complicated scenarios, when they could just be written that way because that’s how broadcast TV is typically written. I wish Young Rock didn’t so often feel like a campaign ad, instead of a comedic look back on an unusual childhood."
    • There's too much of The Rock in Young Rock: "NBC's Young Rock is a new comedy caught between The Rock and a good show," says Daniel Fienberg. "To be clear, as with all things related to the Jumanji star and wrestling legend, The Rock is not a monolith. There's Dwayne Johnson, who collaborated with Nahnatchka Khan and Jeff Chiang to develop what is often a rather lovely tribute to Johnson's hard-working parents and the values they instilled in him during his migratory, economically precarious childhood. Then there's The Rock, beloved movie star and social media presence of such high wattage and near-universal likability that you can understand why all and sundry would be desperate to have him on camera as much as possible in Young Rock — despite the fact that what might be best for the show's visibility turns out not, in any way, to be best for the show artistically. Nobody would say that The Rock is giving a bad performance as The Rock in Young Rock, but he's a distraction and a dilution in a show that deserved to have the chance to stand on its own merits. Actually, that's only the tip of the iceberg — icebergs, which are, I guess, ice and not rocks — when it comes to how many versions of The Rock are featured in this peculiarly structured comedy."
    • As charming as Johnson is, the scenes of him as a grown-up are the weakest part of what is an otherwise sweet and appealing family comedy: "Once Young Rock spins the hands of time backward, the show gets much more fun thanks to Johnson’s unusual yet somehow still relatable upbringing and a cast filled with instantly likable actors," says Jen Chaney, adding: Young Rock hits some off notes here and there. For one, it strains a bit too hard to draw digestible lessons out of Johnson’s experiences. It is best when it displays how the bizarre and the magical often co-existed in the star’s wondrous, bumpy childhood. That’s what happens in episode six when, yes, André the Giant really does take 10-year-old Johnson to see E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, a movie the kid is dying to experience."
    • Given NBC's past with Donald Trump, Young Rock's political messaging is concerning: "It’s in the framing device that I most strongly resisted the show’s pull," says Daniel D'Addario. "Johnson, in real life, has mused about a potential future in politics; as such, this show represents not merely a flight of fancy but, possibly, something like a test balloon. The conversation around the potential of a future Johnson administration reached a brief high point as Donald Trump prepared to accept the Republican Party nomination for President in 2016; the idea was that the best way to fight star power was with more star power. Politics-as-usual was over, so why not bring in a fellow who at least — on film and in the ring — seemed like a good guy? What happens with Johnson’s future would likely have happened regardless of Young Rock, a nice show about a celebrity learning what it took to make him himself. But on the one hand, NBC’s record when it comes to behaving responsibly or with proportion when it comes to using the tools of the media to craft the images of future political leaders is about as bad as it gets. On the other, Johnson’s attempting to keep his options open creates a sort of studious vagueness. Perhaps running for president is a bit like being a mega-movie star — you have to try to create a big-tent coalition and avoid alienating people in either line of work. (Well, unless your image is the mean boss who loves firing people.) But this show about the making of a young person lends us only the vaguest sense of what it all really means — what he learned beyond big terms like 'family' and 'hard work.'"
    • What's initially surprising about Young Rock is how much of a love letter it is to the world of professional wrestling: "But it makes sense once you consider that for Johnson, wrestling isn't just how he became famous — it was a massive part of his childhood and his family's identity," says Liz Shannon Miller. "There's a sincere appreciation for the art and craft of professional wrestling here; while the wrestling world is hardly free from controversy on so many levels, Young Rock so far puts it forward as a sport rich with humanity and drama, making it clear why The Rock still has such fondness for it."
    • Young Rock may be Peak Rock programming, but it also feels like we’ve hit Rock bottom: "The sitcom is not without its charms—the earliest timeline has Johnson hanging out with wrestling legends of decades past, including a wholesome day feeding pigeons and watching E.T. with Andre the Giant," says Miles Surrey. "(Overall, the show does a great job of casting lookalikes, including for Rocky Johnson, Johnson’s father, and Macho Man Randy Savage.) But the whole 'I’m about to become the next president' framing makes Young Rock feel like a vanity project that lacks a requisite self-awareness...The lack of awareness is such that one of the apparent 'controversies' about a potential President Johnson—as seen in a newspaper headline that reads 'Too Fast, Too Furious, Too Famous for President?'—is his celebrity status, which either strangely neglects the past four years under a former reality TV host who became commander-in-chief, or even stranger, willingly equates Johnson to that reality TV host. Even for anyone who’s enjoyed Johnson’s on-screen presence across a ton of crowd-pleasing blockbusters, the self-congratulatory tone of Young Rock—and the implication that being the highest-paid star in Hollywood might make him worthy of the highest office in the country—is not very endearing. Johnson might be one of the hardest working actors in Hollywood—lest we forget, he was on five seasons of HBO’s Ballers in between all the movies he starred in—but Young Rock pushes the boundaries of how much audiences can endure of one person’s victory lap."
    • Meet the three actors playing young Dwayne Johnsons: Adrian Groulx, 11, portrays Johnson at age 10. Bradley Constant, age 22, portrays the 15-year-old Johnson initially with a fake mustache. And 37-year-old Uli Latukefu plays the college-age Johnson. “The day after I got the job, I started training at the gym because I looked at old photos and went, ‘Uh, that’s not me,'" he says. "And it was so cool to step back into the ‘90s — the hair, the shoulder pads, the MC Hammer pants."
    • How Young Rock star Bradley Constant learned to play Dwayne Johnson as an insecure 15-year-old: “It was never pressed upon me to make sure I was a badass kid,” he says. “We all talked a lot about him being a real kid who’s dealing with real issues, and how that shows up in the show.”
    • Co-creator Nahnatchka Khan found Young Rock a unique challenge even after creating Fresh Off the Boat based on a real person: "There are a lot of elements, but at the heart of it is that it’s a family comedy, and that gives us an understanding of the kinds of stories we can tell," she says. "But, knowing that we were telling the life of someone who is worldwide famous gave us new storytelling devices. Every project is different. I think the challenge of this one, for me, was that people are going to feel like, 'Oh, I know Dwayne Johnson. I know his story so I don’t really need to watch it.' I think it was about inviting people in and showing them elements that they can’t find by searching him online or by looking at his Wikipedia way. We wanted to make him more 'human' in a way, and accessible in a way that people hadn’t seen yet."
    • Khan wanted to make sure Johnson's Samoan and Black heritage was a big part of the story: "I think it was very important," she says. "We want audiences to feel like they know this family, and that this family is real — these are based on real people. So, for us, when we get into crafting the scenes, sets, wardrobe, casting, even the props — every element, we want it to feel legit. I think that you don’t really get to see characters like this on television that often and so when you do, it’s important that they feel authentic. Even if you’re not Pacific Islander or not Samoan, you still feel the authenticity of his life, family and how they lived. You’re welcomed into this family in a way where you’re like, 'Oh, I believe it.'"
    • Dwayne Johnson says the process of creating Young Rock with Khan was “so incredibly surreal” that it “knocked me on my butt": “Unlike anything I’ve ever participated in, it required real specificity and an attention to detail,” he says. “And nuance, to find the comedy and make sure that some of these lessons that I learned a tough way would hopefully help audiences, too.” He adds: "It required a lot of hours of sitting down with Nahnatchka, just talking and sharing stories and then walking away, going back home, writing things down, meeting back again, going over more stories. Once we chopped up a lot of years, Nahnatchka and her team went back and they sifted through everything. And they came back with the concept of three timelines, at 10, 15 and 18, which were defining years of my life...I poured myself a lot of tequilas and I was able to jog my memory. I would leave Nahnatchka these voice notes, after my second or third drink, and say, listen, you’re never going to believe this. But I’ll tell it to you anyway. And then we would talk the next day." Johnson was also deeply involved in casting the young versions of himself. "Every single one," he says. "And I was able to spend some time with them, prior to shooting, and let them know what I was like during that time. What I thought my priorities were."

    TOPICS: Young Rock, NBC, Adrian Groulx, Bradley Constant, Dwayne Johnson, Nahnatchka Khan, Uli Latukefu




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