A cute and nostalgic network TV journey through a celebrity’s early years would probably not work under any other circumstances than those of Young Rock. The NBC series brings together the comedy savvy of Nahnatchka Khan (Don’t Trust the B— in Apt 23 and Fresh Off the Boat) and the well-established charisma of wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, hopping through several timelines to give a colorfully embellished but seemingly emotionally genuine survey of The Rock’s childhood.
One of the more controversial aspects of the series will likely be its odd framing devices, which sees Johnson (as himself) running for President of the United States in 2032. In a series of interviews with now-journalist Randall Park (also playing himself), Johnson reveals more about growing up as an early-80s kid (portrayed by Adrian Groulx) in a Hawaiian wrestling family, the difficulties of his late-80s teen years (Bradley Constant) in Pennsylvania, and discovering more about himself as a young man (Uli Latukefu) on a college football scholarship in 90s Miami.
These flashbacks are the real backbone of the show, and while the pilot episode gives us a brief sense of them all, subsequent episodes slow down to focus on each with more depth. In addition to childhood shenanigans (including a young Dwayne being mistaken as an undercover cop at school, and the possibility that the entire show was pitched based on this image), there is a lot of time and love given to Johnson’s complicated relationship with his showman father Rocky (Joseph Lee Anderson), who passed away last year, as well as his beloved mother Ata (Stacey Leilua). It’s clear that, like Khan’s ABC series Fresh Off the Boat, family is the nexus of the story being told here, with both Anderson and Leilua as series standouts.
Still, there are plenty of Easter eggs for wrestling fans in particular, who will undoubtedly enjoy (or bristle) at depictions of famous figures like André the Giant, the Iron Sheik, and Macho Man Randy Savage. Even for those like myself who have no real context for the history of the industry being represented, it all helps build out Young Rock’s candy-colored, comedically-heightened world.
In the three episodes available for review, the most time was given to the littlest Rock (known as “Dewey” by his family), but candidate Johnson also speaks candidly several times about the shoplifting and posturing he did as a teen. It’s not glorified, exactly, but consequence isn’t measured either (at least so far), even though there’s a kind of kid-friendly tenor to Johnson explaining why this was him during a particularly wayward point in his life. It’s an attempt at transparency in what could simply look like a vanity project. With Johnson as a co-creator of the series, and featuring in every episode, the stories being told are obviously going to be tightly controlled. Even though the framing device suggests that this is all to help “voters” (in this case) get to know the real Dwayne Johnson, Young Rock still comes off as feeling highly curated and sanitized for network television—a complaint that the original subject of Fresh Off the Boat, Eddie Huang, had about that series as well.
While fans of Fresh Off the Boat and Don’t Trust the B— may be disappointed by a dulling of Khan’s signature surrealist humor, there are still some sharply funny moments throughout Young Rock, and the show is certainly brimming with warmth. It’s the meta comedy that Khan has used to great effect in other projects that doesn’t quite work here. Johnson is charming as always, and he manages to comes off as genuine, but there’s something odd about the tone of these framing scenes that feels disconnected, or hammy in the wrong ways from what we see elsewhere on the show.
As such, the first episode’s title, “Working The Gimmick,” really sets up a wary expectation for all that follows. But the goal of wrestling is entertainment, and Young Rock provides that in spades; it’s a sweet show, and earnestly likable. So even if viewers do feel like we’re being worked, do we mind?
Young Rock premieres Tuesday, February 16th on NBC.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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