The show is mainly consumed with telling cute and likable stories about Johnson’s upbringing as a child and his coming into his own as a young man. Like a comic spin on “This Is Us” with triceps presses instead of trauma, the show skips around three formative points in Johnson’s youth, then pivots into the future to show Johnson (playing himself) running for president in 2032 and telling his story to the voting public, in scenes set on an interview show or on the campaign trail. That he looks just the same as he does now, unchanging as a mountain, is part of this show’s image campaign: It took a lot to make Johnson who he is today, and now he’s such an unshifting fixture on the landscape that his childhood makes for a new American folklore.
More from Variety
That within the framing device is amiable and pleasant, if consistently buffed to a sheen worthy of an image-conscious celebrity. The three Young Rocks (Adrian Groulx in childhood, Bradley Constant in high school, and Uli Latukefu as a college athlete) are well-equipped to play a celebrity whose chief selling point to fans is his charm. All manage to pull off a consistent performance through the years as a young man coming into his own in a Samoan and Black wrestling family.
The degree of difficulty may be lowered a bit, though, by the tendency of the show to play things fairly soft; unlike other family sitcoms of recent years, this show feels consciously old-school, up to and including that the stories tend to provide soft landings for all involved. The edge of “Fresh Off the Boat,” another period family comedy also executive produced by Nahnatchka Khan and Jeff Chiang, feels somewhat missing here. For instance, high-school-era Dwayne’s taking a date to see his wrestler father (Joseph Lee Anderson) grappling in a makeshift ring at a flea market seems like it might have the potential for embarrassment — until the giddy joy of wrestling makes everyone happy. “Working the gimmick was how my family lived, and we all embraced it,” Johnson himself says; “the gimmick” is a sort of confidence game on a potentially hostile wrestling audience or a society that didn’t necessarily have room for a family that looked like the Johnsons. The show works a gimmick of its own, pushing a sort of relentless sunniness that it’d be churlish to reject out of hand.
In the main, these featherweight stories have a simple, charming appeal, with period detail, subtly shifting between time jumps, tending to distract from just how little is going on. Meanwhile, the grown-ups — Anderson, Stacey Leilua as Johnson’s mother, and Ana Tuisila as his wrestling-promoter grandma — add just enough heft to make the show work. (The marriage between Anderson’s and Leilua’s characters, two Americans struggling towards a dream, seems to have depths the show might plumb further.) When the show is in the past, where it spends the bulk of its time, it charms and has room to develop.
It’s in the framing device that I most strongly resisted the show’s pull. 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.” Johnson tells us that his version of the gimmick was not leaning into untruth, as some wrestlers might, but to “be me, but with the dial turned up to 11.” Loud though his aspirations are, three episodes of “Young Rock” gave no further sense of who Johnson is — only what he wants. That may someday be your vote, but for now, it’s your attention, and it can be hard to feel he’s earned it.
“Young Rock” premieres Feb. 16 at 8 p.m. E.T. on NBC.
Best of Variety