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Denis Leary Is On Fire Again - In FX's 'Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll'
July 16, 2015  | By David Bianculli  | 4 comments

In Rescue Me, Denis Leary was great at playing a flawed, flustered yet innately likable guy. In his new FX series, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, he does it again – this time with music…

Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, premiering Thursday at 10 p.m. ET on FX, has the meat and depth to have worked just as well as a one-hour drama, the format of his fabulous firefighting series, Rescue Me. Yet Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll is a 30-minute comedy, with the laughs even more prominent, but with the characters and situations just as credible and captivating.

Leary plays Johnny Rock, who came close to success in the 1990s as the lead singer of The Heathens – except that internal band squabbles and jealousies had the group breaking up the day its debut LP, with its one hit song, was released. John Corbett, whom different generations of TV viewers will associate most firmly with either Northern Exposure or Sex and the City, plays The Heathens’ former lead guitarist, Flash, now a session player behind the likes of Lady Gaga (whose “cameo,” in tonight’s premiere, is a laugh-out-loud sight gag). Other band members include backup singer Ava (Elaine Hendrix), who’s hung around all these years and emerged as Johnny’s girlfriend; drummer Bam Bam (Robert Kelly, who plays Louis C.K.’s brother on Louie); and bass player Rehab (John Ales), whose name pretty much tells his story.

Reuniting this long-estranged dysfunctional group, with the dream of fame and the bribe of a recently bequeathed trust fund, is 21-year-old Gigi, whom Johnny learns, quite quickly, is the daughter he never knew he had, from another of the band’s former backup singers. Gigi wants The Heathens to write songs for her and perform as her band, with dad on the sidelines – and comes up with enough money, and enough talent, that they agree to go along for the ride.

This makes Gigi a crucial element of Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll. Leary can handle all the joshing and insults with his old band mates just fine, and Corbett is a perfect foil: as strong a character and actor as Leary, and able to play the vain posturing of a good-looking lead guitarist. But without a Gigi to not only sing the songs with attitude and skill, and play the comic antagonism of a new generation gap, but to hit occasional moments of seriousness and depth, the show wouldn’t work.

And it works just fine. Gigi is played by Elizabeth Gillies, whose biggest claim to fame, up to this point, was playing a supporting comic role on the Nickelodeon comedy series Victorious. That show, which ran on Nickelodeon from 2010 to 2013, was set at a performing arts high school, starred Victoria Justice as sweet singing sensation Tori, and featured Ariana Grande as another strong singer, Cat Valentine.

So Gillies, as Jade West (pictured), was used mostly as comic relief, playing a punkish girl with a snarl as her default expression and with a piece of face jewelry adorning her eyebrow– a rarity on Nick. But when Jade got to sing, she killed it – and she does the same here on Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll.

I’ve previewed the first batch of episodes, and they all had me smiling, laughing, and enjoying the music. I don’t know how the comeback of The Heathens, quickly given a new name, will go in the coming episodes – but Leary’s return vehicle is an unqualified success.

Hail, hail, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll…

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