The new NBC sitcom Young Rock bounces around four different time periods in the life of its producer and star, pro wrestler turned action hero Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. The Rock. In 1982, he’s a 10-year-old who goes by Dewey (played by Adrian Groulx), who lives in Hawaii with his wrestler father Rocky (Joseph Lee Anderson) and aspiring-singer mother Ata (Stacey Leilua). In 1987, he’s an oversized teenager (played by Bradley Constant) in Pennsylvania whose classmates are convinced he’s an undercover narc. In 1990, he’s a freshman football player at the University of Miami (played by Uli Latukefu) trying to convert his size and athletic ability into a career. And in 2032, played by Johnson himself, he is running for president, and recalling pivotal moments in his childhood that helped make him the People’s Champion.
Time-hopping is all the rage in TV these days, from dramas like Westworld to docuseries like The Last Dance. Still, four different eras are tough to juggle in the space of a half-hour broadcast network comedy. After a busy pilot episode that tries to give equal time to the many different faces of The Rock — and doesn’t always succeed at that balance — the other episodes NBC provided for review focus on just one of its three Young Rocks, along with commentary from the adult Dwayne Johnson.
But where Johnson is one of the few universally beloved celebrities — and genuine movie stars — we have today, he is perhaps one ingredient too many for his own autobiographical series, which tends to work best when it zeroes in on one of the incarnations of its title character.
The chief creative voice here is Nahnatchka Khan, mining nostalgic territory in the vein of her last sitcom, ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat. That show was also inspired by the life of one of its producers, author Eddie Huang, who narrated his young alter ego’s adventures for a few seasons. When Huang quit over creative differences with Khan and others, FOTB ditched the voiceover altogether, trusting that its characters were well-enough established by that point to not require additional hand-holding or explanation.
Johnson proves useful in the Young Rock pilot, which is framed as an interview he’s doing with FOTB star Randall Park, who is playing himself, working as a TV news anchor in 2032. The adult Johnson quickly establishes the players and stakes in each era, as well as the series’ chief theme. Rocky Johnson reminds little Dewey that every wrestler has to find and work their own gimmick, and politician Dwayne tells Park that his own gimmick turned out to be a simple one: “Be me.”
This is how Johnson has presented himself throughout his career as an entertainer. His genuine, down-to-earth nature is the key to his appeal. We believe that what you see is what you get with him, even if he’s built in rather fantastical proportions, like an aircraft carrier. Young Rock is meant to be a warts-and-all memoir — Rocky Johnson is shown as one degree shy of a con artist, and the teenage Dwayne shoplifts and tells a lot of lies to impress a girl he likes — but the guy in 2032 is so saintly that the framing device starts to feel less like a parody of politics than the subliminal launch of Johnson’s actual political career.
And once Young Rock settles into one era per episode, the real Rock’s presence proves more a distraction than anything else. Khan and her collaborators have done such an effective job building out the extended Johnson family — including actors playing a number of future WWF/WWE stars — that the series is most effective and endearing when it sticks with them. The sixth episode, titled “My Day With Andre,” is a warm, bittersweet tale about the lessons that Dewey and Andre the Giant (Matthew Willig) have to teach one another, and about Rocky’s precarious place in the local pro-wrestling circuit that’s run by his mother-in-law Lia (Ana Tuisila). The 2032 sequences, with candidate Johnson announcing his running mate, just take time away from what’s working so well in the scenes set 50 years earlier.
Like Fresh Off the Boat, Young Rock isn’t wildly funny in the early going, but feels as if the laughs will grow bigger the better we get to know the characters. That there are so many actors playing our hero, not to mention different supporting casts in each era, complicates matters. The real Dwayne Johnson is the name and face that’s meant to draw viewers in to watch these other versions of him, but the best thing he can do for his younger selves may be to step out of the ring for a while to give us more time to smell what these other Rocks are cooking.
Young Rock premieres February 16th on NBC. I’ve seen the first, second, and sixth episodes.