Young Rock review: EW's critics are split on what the Rock is cooking
On Tuesday, NBC debuts Young Rock, a new series inspired by the life of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. No less than four Rocks appear in the first episode, including the wrestler-turned-movie star himself, who narrates stories from three different timelines of his life. EW's television critics Kristen Baldwin and Darren Franich sift through the Rockage to figure out whether this is an eccentric family sitcom, political propaganda, or both.
DARREN: The Rock will run for President. He will be greeted by adoring crowds who love his movies and laugh about his decade-old Kevin Hart jokes. He will receive puff-piece interviews from adoring reporters desperate to impress him. He will not take any obviously controversial stands on political issues, always returning to an agreeable message about "how much we actually all have in common." If someone accuses him of being an out-of-touch multi-millionaire, he will tell endearing stories about his childhood — which isn't quite changing the subject, but isn't not changing the subject.
This is what happens in Young Rock, and also what I assume will happen in real life. The new sitcom plants Johnson's presidential run in 2032. (I'd wager 2028 is more likely, unless his box office grosses trend more Baywatch than Jumanji— and he was floating 2024 a few years ago.) Johnson plays himself as a candidate getting interviewed by Randall Park, playing himself as an actor-turned-newsman. In the premiere, their chat introduces three short stories from the Rock's youth. In 1982, young Dewey (Adrian Groulx) lives in Hawaii with his larger-than-life wrestler dad Rocky (Joseph Lee Anderson), and his patiently frustrated mom Ata (Stacey Leilua). In 1987, puberty turns Dewey (Bradley Constant) into a 15-year-old big enough to pass for an undercover cop at his Pennsylvania high school. By 1990, Dwayne (Uli Latukefu) is playing football for the University of Miami.
It's a lot of show — four shows, really, with distinct settings and supporting casts. We've seen two further episodes beyond the pilot, which each maintain the flashforward bookend while focusing on a single young Rock. Anderson and Leilua are doing great work in every timeline, and newcomer Constant perfectly captures something essential about the Rock's persona, that feeling that he's a self-deprecating small person who just woke up this morning in the body of a demi-god. Meanwhile, the 2032 scenes run the gamut from "inessential" to "awful." I'll admit, my reaction to that material stems a bit from feeling like I'm watching a campaign advertisement produced by NBC, the network that already built a cult of personality for our last terrible President. Kristen, how do you feel about Young Rock so far?
KRISTEN: Disclaimer: I'm a longtime fan of The Rock. I was big into wrestling during the height of his WWE fame; I saw him win a ladder match at Madison Square Garden; I co-wrote EW's 1999 cover story on the pro-wrestling phenomenon. I'll admit to that fan's pride of ownership that comes with watching someone you love for the "niche" thing they do become a celebrity of global-domination proportions.
Based on the three episodes we've seen, I'd say Young Rock — co-created by Johnson and Nahnatchka Khan (Fresh Off the Boat) — is significantly funnier than last month's high-profile NBC half-hour, Mr. Mayor. (Hang in there, Bobby Moynihan!) As you pointed out, the cast is fantastic, especially Anderson as Rocky Johnson, a natural showman whose commitment to "working the gimmick" sometimes overshadows his responsibilities as a father and husband. There's a lot of wrestling nostalgia that fans over a certain age will enjoy. In one particularly fun bit of creative license, young Dewey, who lives in Hawaii, spends the day hanging out with Andre the Giant (Matthew Willig, soulful and sweet), who also seems to live in Hawaii. That night, Dewey heads to an arena to watch Andre and Rocky compete in a Battle Royale with a host of big-name wrestlers, including Rocky, Sgt. Slaughter, Ricky Steamboat, Iron Sheik, and Randy "Macho Man" Savage... who all happen to be in Hawaii! What fun it must have been to grow up alongside the WWE Justice League. Also, I'm pretty sure Andre the Giant never resided in the Aloha State — but this isn't really biography, Darren! It's fan service!
The Rock is nothing if not savvy about what people want from him. What if — hear me out, Darren — what if Young Rock is just Johnson's wish-fulfillment response to his fans who want him to run for president? Perhaps there's a world where it isn't laying the myth-building groundwork for a real future political run and instead just a winky nod to his ever-more-stately charisma.
Cue Doc Brown: "Ronald Reagan? The actor?" You're probably right about the true Young Rock agenda. In the short-term, though, do you think the quadruple-timeline structure is sustainable? It's a relief to see that after the pilot, subsequent episodes focus on one flashback timeline rather than cramming all four into 22 minutes. Do you have a favorite timeline so far?
DARREN: That Battle Royale episode has so many fun crossovers between family and business, and those connections are supercharged by the sheer hyperbole the wrestling life. It makes the '80s Hawaii setting like a full show unto itself. The intersection of actual reality and ring reality already created one perfect sitcom (RIP, GLOW) and an acclaimed documentary series (Dark Side of the Ring). Young Rock sanitizes the industry quite a bit, but I will never complain about Andre the Giant lecturing a little boy about alternate realities, the moon, and pigeons.
Khan is definitely working hard to squeeze her co-creator/subject's wandering biography into a fast-paced sitcom format. As much as I enjoy Constant, a lot of the high school and college material has a bland origin-of-the-hero self-help quality: How I Got Great, by Me. Latukefu first appears as the 18-year-old Rock, but given the actor's age, I assume he'll ultimately incarnate the Rock's early wrestling fame. I'm a lot more invested in the parents. Rocky's professional standing wanes through the years, so some sadness hides underneath his unstoppable braggadocio. The second episode follows Ata to her job cleaning house for a boozy divorceé, an interaction that goes in an unexpected direction. I worry that, right now, these mom-and-dad subplots are just quick glimpses, necessarily wedged between their son learning life lessons across time and space.
Disclaimer: I am a human being who breathes air, so I have enjoyed many of the Rock's media ventures. (Give me two hours and I'll explain why Hercules is his most personal essay.) But the future scenes are just bad, with choppy dialogue that wavers between bad jokes and "I'm gonna get real" messaging. Feel free to disregard my political prophecies — but if you think the Rock is never going to run for President, there's just no reason for the 2032 timeline to be so blah.
Are there parts of Young Rock that you're really invested in, Kristen?
KRISTEN: The 2032 scenes don't bother me, to be honest. I'm getting a kick out of Randall Park as an inept journalist, and Christopher Chen is making the most of his role as Johnson's perpetually-panicked publicist, Sandy. That said, Rosario Dawson's first appearance as [REDACTED] was underwhelming at best. Based on what we've seen, I'm guessing Johnson will spend less and less time on screen as the season progresses, which is good news if you're hating the future timeline.
Young Rock is a show dominated by men, but it's the female characters who are really standing out for me. Ana Tuisila is brilliant as Lia Malvia, Johnson's shrewd and formidable grandmother, and one of the first female wrestling promoters. Lia holds it all together on the wrestling side, crafting grabby storylines for her talent and fiercely beating back competitors trying to poach her guys. As Rocky's career starts to falter, Ata is the one scrubbing floors to keep eggs and store-brand cola in the Johnson family fridge. The real-life Ata has charisma for days, and Young Rock devotes part of an episode to her dreams, ambitions that don't involve motherhood and being able to purchase half and half for her coffee. I hope we see more of that going forward. Johnson is savvy enough to know that a successful man would just be a jabroni if it weren't for the strong women in his life.
The show made me laugh, and a few times it even dropkicked me right in the feels. Future me may regret this, but I'm giving Young Rock my endorsement.
Kristen's Grade: B+
Darren's Grade: B-
Based on Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson's life, this comedy follows the Hollywood superstar at three different stages: ages 10, 15, and 20.