Show business can be a real mother.
Last week, we met Gigi’s long-talked about mom. Her appearance was bound to happen eventually, and even though it was cloaked in a plot about tattoos (and many, many butt shots), it was as necessary as it was inevitable: In order for the audience to understand why Gigi would put everything on the line to chase her dream, we had to see what she was running from. Gigi’s mother Cat was jealous and overbearing, and while Johnny Rock is also guilty of those things from time to time, he feels guilt about his absence in Gigi’s life. Cat, on the other hand, feels resentment and sees her own daughter primarily as competition.
Apparently, those character flaws run deep in Gigi’s family DNA. This week, we meet Johnny Rock’s mother, Elizabeth, portrayed with annoyed grace by Kelly Bishop (better known as Emily Gilmore, less known as Fanny Flowers from the criminally canceled Bunheads). Johnny hasn’t made any reference to either of Gigi’s grandparents in the past (for some reason I assumed they were dead, though maybe I just assumed that because they had never come up), but the arrival of Grandma Elizabeth is a welcome one. The core cast of Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll work so well together that they are able to easily accept guest stars like Bishop (and Callie Thorne, who played Cat last week) into the fold and play off them with breezy aplomb.
There are actually three key guest stars this week, all of whom make a sturdy impression. Elizabeth calls Johnny out of the blue to announce that she is not only dying of cancer but also marrying Jeremy (Roger Bart), who is shooting a documentary and writing her a one-woman show about the Broadway career she never had. The rest of the band spins the story for Gigi: Elizabeth was supposedly up for the titular role in Mary Poppins, but got pregnant with Johnny and had to pass the role on to a relatively unknown named Julie Andrews (who, of course, collected an Oscar and became a legend for her trouble). Not only that, but Elizabeth’s up-and-coming sax-playing husband Ted (Peter Riegert, also currently appearing on HBO’s Show Me a Hero) couldn’t handle the rigors of the music business and became a doctor instead. Elizabeth feels like her entire life was compartmentalized, but in Gigi (and to a lesser extent Johnny), she sees the fully-formed version of the star-making potential she feels she was denied decades ago. It’s a psychology that plays out over and over again on Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, one that taps into the endless tug-of-war between experience and talent, and the natural resentment that most everybody feels about the generations behind them.
Elizabeth isn’t particularly interested in making any amends, though she does want to meet her super hot, on-the-cover-of-Time Out New York granddaughter, so she invites that band to play her wedding, though they have to play Billy Joel songs and wear wacky ’70s garb. That leads to another in a series of excellent walk-in-slow-motion shots at the top of the second act, with Robert Kelly’s wig looking particularly resplendent. If there isn’t an Emmy category for slow-motion walking shots, they should invent it just for Sex&Drugs.
It turns out that the wedding is a sham on a handful of levels: Elizabeth is in fine health (she had a polyp removed by ex-husband Ted, who notes, “If that polyp was a tumor, then I’m Clarence f—ing Clemons”), new husband Jeremy is gay, and she was far more interested in upstaging everybody at the wedding with a song from her Elaine Stritch-bashing stage show than making any sort of connection to her family (or enjoying the excellent new song called “Put It On Me” that Johnny penned just for this occasion). Unlike Cat from last episode, Elizabeth has found no peace in her lack of stardom—she’s still clawing at fame and resenting the world around her, even at her advanced age. Meanwhile, Ted seems content to dole out some wisdom and wail away on his sax when he thinks nobody is looking. It’s a grind, this business called show, but it seems those who keep passion at the center of it (or a handful of Grammys) end up happiest in the end.