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‘Young Rock’ Review: A Fun & Sincere Sitcom, But Does Its ‘Gimmick’ Have Staying Power?

Young Rock
Photo Credit: NBC

‘Working the Gimmick’—the premiere episode of NBC’s new sitcom Young Rock—might be one of the aptest titles for a premiere ever (outside of the oh-so clever ‘Pilot’ title). It not only explains the origins of the mantra that Dwayne Johnson lives by, but it also serves as a unique commentary on the premise of the show itself.

This entire series is based on a simple gimmick—the 2032 version of Dwayne Johnson, who is a presidential candidate, retelling his formative years in Hawaii, Pennsylvania, and Florida in order to prove to the world that he’s someone who knows what it means to struggle and has had to work hard in order to achieve the god tier level of success and stardom he’s had in his life.

The “gimmick” here is not unlike the premise for the short-lived CBS sitcom Me, Myself and I. That series followed one man’s journey as a kid, a struggling 30 something (played by Bobby Moynihan) and a billionaire inventor (played by John Larroquette). Yet, despite the unique premise and strong performances, this show had little staying power.

Young Rock does one key thing that that series did not have — The Rock. It’s undeniable how popular Johnson is: look at his box office receipts over the past decade as well as the cool 5 million viewers that tuned in to watch the Young Rock premiere. Dwayne Johnson is a beloved figure in pop culture and people are going to watch anything he does; however, the concern for this series is whether or not it can sustain the gimmick it is built upon. Can this show sustain an audience who tuned in based on Johnson’s name value, as well as one based on the “gimmick” of recasting all the historical figures in Johnson’s larger-than-life existence?

This is not meant to be a condemnation of the Young Rock premiere, though. The premiere is easily one of the most enjoyable and easy-to-watch sitcoms to debut in a very, very long time. The big draw for the episode — seeing legendary wrestlers (e.g. The Iron Sheik, Andre the Giant) and football players (e.g. Russell Maryland, Jessie Armstead) recast as young people — is one of the most impressive parts of the series. The uncanny resemblance, both physically and emotionally, that these actors have to their real-life inspirations is not only wildly jaw-dropping but adds a sense of authenticity to the story. The premiere never feels cartoonish, nor do these cameos feel crowbarred in for the sake of a cameo, which is definitely a good thing.

Beyond the cameos, the premiere is bolstered by a breezy vibe and fun and lively pace, with no timeline ever overstaying its welcome (although the Pennsylvania/high school timeline is easily featured the most). The jokes are well-timed, the chemistry between the entire cast is scary good for a premiere, and then there’s an unexpected sense of drama that juxtaposes all the sizzle and silliness wonderfully. It was probably not expected that we’d see Johnson’s issues with his father arise so soon in the premiere, nor the seriousness of how close his family was to poverty.

Adrian Groulx (10-year-old Dwayne Johnson), Bradley Constant (15-year-old Dwayne Johnson), and Uli Latukefu (18–20-year-old Johnson) are all excellent in their roles as The Rock during different points in his life. Even with the timeline jumps, no performance feels disconnected from the other—even to the 2032 version of Johnson. Joseph Lee Anderson does a marvelous job showing the duality of “Soul Man” Rocky Johnson—a larger-than-life performer, but a dad who struggles at fatherhood. Yet it’s Stacey Leilua, who portrays Johnson’s mother Ata, who steals the show. Her ability to employ a quick wit while also being the emotional “rock” of the Johnson family and the series is undeniable. Also, we’d be remiss in not mentioning Randall Park’s appearance as himself, who is conducting the interview with the 2032 version of Dwayne Johnson. He’s just perfect as the self-deprecating foil to the uber confident “Brahma Bull.”

For Young Rock to be successful, it has to be more than a gimmick. It has to be more than “what famous person is showing up this week?” or fourth-wall break moments of irony used for eye-rolling comedy. Those are all well and good, but for Young Rock to be a sustained success it needs to lean into the sincerity, authenticity, and relatable drama from within Dwayne Johnson’s story to keep audiences invested. Luckily, the foundation for success is here in the premiere. Strong, lived in performances combined with sincere moments of drama and vulnerability and better-than-expected cast chemistry are wildly apparent in this episodes. If the series relies on its cast’s talent and chemistry and a strong heartfelt approach to its storytelling, Dwayne Johnson could be looking at yet another sustained pop culture franchise to add to his already long list of successes in his career.

Young Rock airs Tuesdays on NBC. The premiere can be watched on demand via your cable provider or on the free tier of Peacock.


Bill Bodkin
Bill Bodkinhttps://thepopbreak.com
Bill Bodkin is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break, and most importantly a husband, and father. Ol' Graybeard writes way too much about wrestling, jam bands, Asbury Park music, HBO shows, and can often be seen under his season DJ alias, DJ Father Christmas. He is the co-host of the Socially Distanced Podcast (w/Al Mannarino) which drops weekly on Apple, Google, Anchor & Spotify. He is the co-host of the monthly podcasts -- Anchored in Asbury, TV Break and Bill vs. The MCU.

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