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TV review: 'Rescue Me' star Denis Leary returns home to FX in 'Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll'

 
By Christopher Lawrence
The Las Vegas Review-Journal
Posted on 7/15/2015, 11:09 AM

If other networks and cable channels seem like businesses -- CBS, for instance, comes across like a procedural factory, cranking out the same series, over and over, with different casts -- FX feels more like a family.

Albeit a family made up of killer clowns, a Nazi bondage fetishist, a rubber-suited ghost rapist and a murderous Hollywood starlet who's literally a witch.

And that's just "American Horror Story."

But that show and Denis Leary's new comedy, "Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll" (10 p.m. Thursdays), represent some of the legacy series -- throwbacks to the three cornerstone dramas that established the channel -- to which FX has turned rather than relying on spinoffs.

Kurt Sutter, an executive producer on FX's first (and greatest) drama, "The Shield," went on to create the long-running "Sons of Anarchy" and has a new drama, "The Bastard Executioner," set to debut on the channel this fall. Like most of the cast of "The Shield," its leading man, Michael Chiklis, appeared on "Sons," and he also joined the cast of "American Horror Story: Freak Show." And after wrapping up his duties as "The Shield's" rogue cop Shane Vendrell, Walton Goggins starred as "Justified's" mesmerizing crook Boyd Crowder as well as "Sons of Anarchy's" transgender prostitute, Venus Van Damme.

The spirit of FX's plastic surgery nightmare "Nip/Tuck" lives on with creator Ryan Murphy's "American Horror Story" franchise.

And now Leary, the "Rescue Me" star and co-creator, has returned home, writing and starring as washed-up singer Johnny Rock in "Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll."

Volatile early '90s rockers The Heathens -- frontman Johnny, guitarist Flash (John Corbett), bassist Rehab (John Ales) and drummer Bam Bam (Robert Kelly) -- were on the cusp of greatness, thanks to their raucous live shows. Then their debut album came out on a Tuesday morning. The band broke up that night.

They're brought back together, though, by the arrival of Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies), the daughter Johnny never knew he had. Armed with a great voice and $200,000, she hires Johnny and Flash to write her some songs, gets the band back together and replaces Johnny as the lead singer.

Aside from the mullet and dated clothes, Johnny isn't far removed from Tommy Gavin, the tortured New York firefighter Leary portrayed for seven seasons on "Rescue Me." They're both addicts, both have twisted family lives and both go on unprovoked rants, spurred on by whatever's bugging Leary at the moment. (In Thursday's premiere, it's a tired complaint that the Kardashians are only famous because of Kim's sex tape, and it's accompanied by an unfortunate "joke" about Bruce, not Caitlyn, Jenner's anatomy.)

Tommy's struggles with sobriety were a mainstay of "Rescue Me," and Johnny, who's shown accidentally snorting dishwashing detergent, makes a brief, reluctant attempt to get clean for Gigi. Although it isn't without protest.

"John Lennon high wrote 'Imagine,' 'Strawberry Fields' and 'Revolution,' " Johnny rails, in Leary's recognizable, machine-gun stand-up cadence. "John Lennon straight, on his last album, wrote a three-minute song about baking a loaf of bread. He'd gotten so boring, if Mark David Chapman hadn't shot him, Yoko probably would've."

Corbett's Flash gives Leary a stronger foil than any he had on "Rescue Me." Not only does Corbett have a greater star presence, unlike the penniless, forgotten Johnny -- whose agent dumps him but hangs on to a better client, a monkey named Steve who makes balloon humans -- Flash has found fame as Lady Gaga's guitarist.

Despite Gaga's being yet another member of the FX family -- the singer has signed on for "American Horror Story: Hotel" -- she doesn't turn up on "Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll," at least not through the five episodes sent to critics. But be on the lookout for appearances by Dave Grohl, Joan Jett and Greg Dulli of The Afghan Whigs, who produces the show's songs.

The cast takes some time to jell. And Thursday's premiere feels much more like some stuck-in-time rock 'n' roll version of "Absolutely Fabulous" than the series it ultimately becomes.

But while "Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll" might not be another classic like the early seasons of "Rescue Me," it's good to have Leary home.

Even if that home often feels more like an asylum.

Christopher Lawrence writes for The Las Vegas Review-Journal.