Dwayne Johnson’s NBC Show Reveals His Life
One of the most important lessons to be learned in this business of show is the difference between an actor and a movie star: The two concepts aren’t mutually exclusive, but oftentimes we see people make a clear choice between one or the other, transforming themselves into characters or transforming characters to fit or tweak with their well-established personas. Dwayne Johnson — or, as he’ll forever be known in our hearts, The Rock — has nearly always fallen into the latter category. But what’s made his career so fun to follow over over the last 15 years is how much there is within said persona to explore, something which proves to be the bedrock of the new NBC comedy Young Rock.
Spanning several decades and locations — 10-year-old “Dewey” (Adrian Groulx) growing up in Hawaii, to 15-year-old “Tomas” (Bradley Constant) now living with his parents in Pennsylvania, to the college-aged “beast of Bethlehem” (Uli Latukefu) playing football in Miami — Young Rock purports to tell the complete story of Johnson’s life. Johnson himself narrates as part of a relatively unconventional framing device: In the year 2032, he’s running for President, and he’s engaging in a long-form sit-down interview with Randall Park (playing himself, just go with it, Randall Park is a gem) to tell stories about how he became the man he is today, or, at the very least, the man he is in the year 2032.
The framing device might be the trickiest element of the show to accept, though it does mean that Johnson so far appears in a lot more of the show than anticipated, and in his brief screen time Park (who is having an incredible 2021 so far) comes dangerously close to stealing the entire show. But as wild as this part of the series is, the actual stories about The Rock when he was Young are so far fun, grounded, engaging, and relatable even in their specificity.
Full credit to that goes to creator Nahnatchka Khan, who has proven more than once that she’s one of the best writers working in the broadcast TV world, unafraid of finding the sharp edges in even a family-friendly sitcom like Fresh Off the Boat. (And if you’ve never watched the brilliant Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 before, fix that.) Pairing her up with this material ends up being a near-perfect match, her unique sensibility marrying elegantly with the rich details of Johnson’s life.
While the pilot brings together all three Young Rocks for a slightly rushed collection of stories introducing all three time periods, based on the other two episodes provided for review the plan appears to be focusing individual episodes on just one era at a time, a smart choice which allows for the ensemble surrounding each character, especially Stacey Leilua and Joseph Lee Anderson as The Rock’s parents, to receive additional development and their well-deserved portion of the spotlight.
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. 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.
Really, the entire series is worth checking out for “My Day with Andre,” an episode that prominently features Matthew Willig as the lovable, inscrutable André the Giant, hanging out with 10-year-old The Rock. If you’ve read even a little bit about what kind of man André René Roussimoff was (for one such look I highly recommend As You Wish, Cary Elwes‘ heartfelt book about the making of The Princess Bride) then you know what a fascinating character he was, and the interplay between Willig and Groulx is genuinely touching.
Young Rock is not The Rock’s first major TV show — once upon a time, there was a show called Ballers on HBO, in which he played Spencer Strasmore, a former NFL player turned sports agent. For a while during Ballers‘ time on the air, I liked to write weekly about how hard The Rock balled in each episode, because sometimes he would ball very hard indeed, and sometimes Spencer would face a rough turn of events, and things wouldn’t be that baller at all.
By asking the question “How Hard Did the Rock Ball?” each week, the question I was really asking was “what is it inside us that makes us not just appear strong and powerful to the world, but actually makes us strong and powerful inside?” That’s because for me, the most baller moments of Ballers were not the tequila-soaked parties or wham-bam business deals. They were the moments when we saw The Rock truly embrace his vulnerability with dignity and grace, making his weaknesses truly into strengths.
Young Rock, in some sense, explodes this concept to an even greater degree, with The Rock acknowledging and embracing every ounce of his unconventional childhood and his awkward adolescence, admitting to less-than-savory behavior and bringing forward his humiliations with the sort of pride and self-confidence that come from having lived life well, and learning from your mistakes.
As a TV show, Young Rock is off to a solid start, and as a look into how The Rock became the baller he is today, it’s must-see TV.
Young Rock premieres on February 16 on NBC, airing Tuesdays at 8 p.m.
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