You certainly can’t fault CMT for ambition: Its new scripted series aims to tell no less than the origin story of rock & roll through the lens of Sun Records, the iconic Memphis label that introduced the world to the likes of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Ike Turner. As Sun founder Sam Phillips, Chad Michael Murray is all Southern charm and steely core, and the show — based on the well-received Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet — has fun stacking its cast of future legends (Johnny finds the gee-tar! Elvis discovers his pelvis!).
Thankfully, there’s nothing stagy-looking about the production itself; Sun doesn’t skimp on period detail and dusty, warm-toned atmosphere. But in the gently-paced opening episodes, its storylines thread together only in the loosest sense, a series of vignettes in no immediate hurry to connect: We’re shown that Phillips is a genuine music fan and devoted family man who also happens to have a tenuous grasp on mental health, a growing flirtation with Dexedrine, and a serious thing on the side with his studio assistant (Margaret Anne Florence). We see that teenage Elvis (a sweet, proto-sideburned Drake Milligan) is irresistibly drawn to the gospel harmonies he hears pouring from the local black church, and that his heedless “color mixing” might cost him his conservative girlfriend. We witness young Cash’s ugly relationship with his embittered father, and fabled future Presley manager Col. Tom Parker (Billy Gardell) as a scrambling, not-ready-for-primetime huckster, hustling local townsfolk for pocket change by making ducks “dance” on a makeshift stage (he’s actually lit a hidden flame under their little webbed feet.)
A lot of these bits feel like fun, character-building trivia, a pleasant string of interludes and anecdotes working toward a more cohesive whole. But there’s also a lot that feels warmed over from sharper retellings in films like Walk the Line and Cadillac Records, perhaps an inevitable challenge of revisiting stories already so long settled into industry legend. (The show’s sincere but often superficial treatment of race, especially — both in and out of the recording booth — struggles to find new territory.)
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In the four episodes so far available to critics, Sun Records shows intriguing reach and initiative for a network whose ratings highs currently include the likes of Party Down South and Redneck Island. But next to the soapy melodrama of Nashville (which directly precedes it on Thursday nights) or the cocaine-dusted ’70s Gomorrah of HBO’s doomed Vinyl, the drama also feels oddly sedate, a half-told story rolling along — and only moderately rocking — that hasn’t quite yet proved itself as necessary viewing. B
Sun Records premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. ET on CMT.