Is Dwayne Johnson's biographical sitcom a cheerful nostalgia burst — or a tightly-controlled brand advertisement for a political run? Either way, on season 2, the future looks much stranger.
Young Rock

Young Rock could just be an endearing throwback comedy. Producer Dwayne Johnson has lived a lot of content. The IP that is himself offers a lot of story potential. But Johnson also (maybe) wants to be President of the United States. So Young Rock is never not a TV show about Old Rock, the 60-year-old actor-turned-politician running for the White House in 2032. In season 1, that plotline was just boring. Now it's getting weird.

The NBC sitcom cuts between four distinct eras. In the early 1980s, 10-year-old Dewey (Adrian Groulx) lives in Hawaii with his parents. Ata (Stacey Leilua) is wrestling-industry royalty, and her husband Rocky (Joseph Lee Anderson) is an up-and-coming star. By the late '80s, the family lives in Pennsylvania, and Dewey has become a teenager (Bradley Constant). Uli Latukefu plays the biggest little Rock in the early '90s, through college football and beyond. Co-creators Nahnatchka Khan and Jeff Chiang previously worked together on Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 and Fresh Off the Boat (both created by Khan), and the sitcom vets know how to craft frantic broadcast comedy. The Hawaii stuff can be goofy fun. The middle years are more tense, with both parents trying to cheerfully shake off their declining economic prospects. The '90s are pointless, just like in real life.

But the show is helplessly pulled to the fourth timeline. Johnson himself introduces all the flashbacks (and narrates throughout) from his remote outlook in the future. He's in the thick of a presidential campaign. We hear non-specific aspects of his platform: job security, fighting for the American people, toughness and fairness in the Middle East. "As your President," he speechifies, "I will make sure none of us get left behind, and that change benefits all, not just some." These are not funny political statements, which is just one clue that Young Rock is only a part-time sitcom.

Dwayne Johnson and Randall Park on 'Young Rock'
| Credit: Daniel Delgado/NBC

Meanwhile, the complaints about Candidate Rock sound mild. His critics say "he's lived the cushy Hollywood life for so long he can't relate to the struggles of the average American." That's Randall Park talking. The Fresh Off the Boat star plays himself as an actor-turned-newscaster. In season 2, the fictional Park moves into fictional Rock's house for all-day interviews. The only real joke is that Park wants Johnson to think he's cool.

Example: The season's second episode portrays the end of Johnson's football career, when he found himself with seven dollars in his pocket. The main plot climaxes with bittersweet father-son conversation. If this were a normal show, it would be a lovely scene to close the episode. Instead, we cut back to 2032:

Randall Park: Oh my god, so that was your seven bucks drive…well, you've talked about that moment before.

Dwayne Johnson: Yes, after I dedicated my life to football, the only thing I had to show for it was seven bucks. That was a low point.

Randall Park: Yeah, but you took that, made it the name of your company, and built it into a global brand.

Dwayne Johnson: It makes for a hell of a story knowing how everything turned out.

Hold on, let me find the funny part of this comedy dialogue. [searchessearches, searches]

Park is a charming and talented actor, and I hope he takes solace in knowing he will never do anything worse than this. He constantly has to adopt the peculiar lingo of the infomercial rube: Oh, so that's when you started your path to glory, Person Paying Me To Say These Words! Of course, it's not a crime for Seven Bucks Productions to make a TV episode about the inception of its corporate identity. Celebrity worship in 2022 comes freighted with rapacious consumerism, everyone pitching their own brand. Young Rock isn't peddling vitamin supplements, cryptocurrency, or whatever terrible car Brie Larson is driving today. It's just selling the Rock, who made the best Hercules movie ever. So what's the issue?

There is no issue, if you think Johnson's only goal is maintaining a steady stream of easily consumable projects starring himself. But I believe the Rock is going to run for President someday. (Prove me wrong, future!) And if the Rock isn't going to run for political office, there's no reason for the 2032 scenes to be so airless, so tightly controlled in their messaging.

Season 1's big cameo moment comes when Candidate Johnson announces his running mate, General Monica Jackson, played by Rosario Dawson. Jackson appears, says that she is bad at public speaking, and then lets the Rock speak for her. (The two actors do not physically interact; if they weren't filmed separately, it sure looks like it.) Later, she comes under fire when the media unearths her old West Point humor column. Her "Witticisms of Mass Destruction" included calling U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan "a weak cup of Kofi."

If we assume that Johnson is using Young Rock as a very early campaign advertisement, we have to give him credit for clever optics. Outspoken Bernie Sanders supporter Dawson plays a soldier and a U.N. skeptic who runs afoul of comedy's morality police. Her arrival apparently creates the first non-white major political party ticket in history — which no one could possibly find remotely offensive, except maybe the current leadership of one major political party.

IRL Rock is an avowed independent centrist who endorsed Joe Biden. We see the 2032 Rock debate Senator Brayden Taft (Michael Torpey), the great-great-great grandson of President William Howard Taft. This allows Johnson to make a "Taft got stuck in the bathtub" reference, a joke that will actually be a hundred years old in 2032. Taft's actual descendants tend to be Republican, but it's obvious that Brayden is meant to stand in for any aristocratic political dynasty from either side of the aisle.

Okay, fine: Here's some non-denominational political escapism. Imagine a future presidential campaign where an aristocratic blue blood and a global entertainment celebrity politely debate who is more out of touch. No one accuses anyone of destroying the country. No one openly courts white supremacists. It's possible that Johnson's politics don't align with mine, but it would be swell to respectfully disagree with someone like him.

All of which makes the major plot turn in season 2's flash-forwards extra awkward, and maybe more revealing than anything on Young Rock up to this point. There wasn't really any ongoing 2032 narrative in season 1, but the new episodes introduce a foil for future Johnson. A mystery Minnesota man (Sean Astin) has been tweeting about the Rock every day of his presidential campaign. The fellow's message is starting to get picked up by "fringe social media sites." He claims to be an old schoolmate from the Hawaii days, with a wild story to share from half a century ago:

I had just moved there, a new kid from St. Paul, Minnesota. I could tell right away that he was full of it. A lot of things just didn't add up. So I questioned him on it. And, yeah, he tried to kill me.

This week's episode reveals that, no, young Rock did not try to murder anyone. "When you're on top, somebody will come along and try to knock you down a peg," he explains, before revealing the source of his tangled backstory. Dewey was riding high off his father's heavyweight championship. A kid named Julian started questioning whether Rocky was even Dewey's father. Now Julian has grown up to be the man from Minnesota. This makes him the great villain of Young Rock, nursing a half-century grudge.

So who is this bad guy? "A chiropractor with two stars on Yelp," we're told, "Divorced, one son. He's been banned from the Olive Garden for complaining too much." In short, a total loser. His anti-Rock critiques veer immediately ridiculous: "No way that was him singing in Moana." He also asks a question about steroids, which seems less ridiculous than the Moana thing, but it's more notable that Young Rock can't even bring itself to imagine that a far-out lunatic has any kind of actual political axe to grind with Johnson. There's no sense of a left- or right-wing response to any of Candidate Rock's policies. The biggest critic's entire complaint is that he thinks the Rock is lying.

What makes all this interesting is that Young Rock is an obviously fictionalized show, converting Johnson's life into a zippy 2020s sitcom with zero pretenses at realism. It's also largely about professional wrestling, an art form and an industry dedicated to making fiction look as real as possible. Heck, the whole mission statement of Young Rock is basically Fake It Till You Make It. Way back in the pilot episode, Rocky waves to his adoring fans after a fight, gets into a cool car with his family… and then drives to the cheap hotel they're living in. The fancy automobile is a key part of his persona. But is the car a lie? Is wrestling a lie? Rocky pitches it in much heavier terms, defensive yet honest: "You work the gimmick hard enough, it'll become real."

When I saw the series premiere last year, I thought that line doubled as a bit of explanatory self-deprecation. Sure, some of these tales are pretty tall — and why not print the legend? Fake it till you make it isn't bad advice, as such. But you see how the arrival of a character like Julian adds a new note of tension. His role in a fictionalized biography is to accuse the biography of being fictional. The third episode ends cliffhanger-ishly, with Johnson making contact with his long-ago nemesis. Will they actually meet up this season? Fair to guess that someone will get taken down a peg. Fair to guess it will not be the character played by the star-subject-producer who has approved the invention of his own fictional dork antagonist.

If this were a show about a vaguely Rock-type wrestler-actor-politician, made by people who were not the Rock, this could make for potent sharp comedy. Imagine if Julian had a point, or if his presence revealed something that would be genuinely embarrassing for a political candidate. But Julian is a petulant lunatic right away. Really, the mere act of questioning the Rock at all is offensive in the show's world. Worth pointing out that, when Gen. Jackson was introduced, the fictional 2032 Johnson claimed he had had "differences of opinion" with his running mate in the past. We never get any remote sense of those differences of opinion. In her second appearance, Monica declares: "We have a Presidential candidate with integrity and character, and I can't think of a better person to lead our country." Dawson delivers that line like she's reading a ransom note.

So. A potential future Presidential nominee has created a show about himself, where his critics either wind up working for him or are social media lonelyboys, and everyone else is a smirking yes-man. It's possible that the only people who care about this are, like, critics, though it's worth pointing out that Young Rock's ratings have declined this season. Right about now would be a great time to shed the whole bizarre election subplot and focus in on what's working, like the performances by Anderson and Leilua, or the whole family-business setting of the '80s Hawaiian wrestling scene. That's an obvious fix — unless you believe the election subplot is the real point of the show. That's what I think, but it doesn't matter what I think. Young Rock is the Rock's world. We might just wind up living in it.

Sign up for Entertainment Weekly's free daily newsletter to get breaking TV news, exclusive first looks, recaps, reviews, interviews with your favorite stars, and more.

Related content:

Young Rock
Young Rock

Based on Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson's life, this comedy follows the Hollywood superstar at three different stages: ages 10, 15, and 20.

  • TV Show