Dwayne Johnson is one of the most recognizable stars in the world. He successfully leveraged professional wrestling into a prosperous acting career where his films have exceeded $10.5 billion in the world box office. But, how did Johnson become the charismatic international icon than we see today? The new sitcom, Young Rock, explores the significant moments while growing up that helped influence and mold him into the man he is.
The series is set in the year 2032 and follows a future Johnson on the campaign trail while he runs for president. In a series of interviews, the presidential hopeful looks back at the times when he was a young Rock to show that he’s in touch with the American people because his upbringing and the challenges he’s faced are not too different from theirs.
The placing of the narrative in the future and the use of flashbacks serves the series well. It allows the main attraction, Johnson, to be involved with significant screen time rather than be a voice over and the show benefits from his presence. It also lets the story transition to the three main years, 1982, 1987, and 1990, rather easily without confusing the audience. However, the use of the campaign can border propaganda at times as it talks up the star.
The different time periods that are focused on paint a very relatable Dewey Johnson, each in their own ways. At the age of ten, he is still a wide-eyed young boy who idolizes his dad and who finds the importance of family, including those not blood related. His time around Polynesian Pro Wrestling is highly featured and it shows humanizing sides to the legends in the industry at the time including Andre the Giant, the Junk Yard Dog, and the Iron Sheik.
When he attends high school in 1987, he has a more realistic view on life and he’s aware of the Johnson family hardships. He even picks up a part time job to help make ends meet. But, he’s not any different from any other high schooler and still longs to wear the trendy clothing, date the popular girl, and increase his popularity. It also highlights his questionable behavior to obtain these things.
Probably the least developed is his first year in college. There are so many things the episode is trying to establish that 1990 receives the short end of the stick. This stage in his life is his first steps into manhood and he’s trying to step out of his father’s shadow and establish himself individually.
Young Rock benefits from co-creator, Nahnatchka Khan, and writer Jeff Chiang. Much like in their previous sitcom, Fresh Off the Boat, they bring a variety of humor that can be clever, exaggerated, and in Johnson’s case, self-deprecating. The whole bit of a high school Dwayne being a 21 Jump Street type cop never gets old. They also know how to tap into the nostalgia of those years from the fashion to the clothes to what was going on in the pop culture zeitgeist.
Still, they don’t shy away from the darker parts of the Johnsons including the Rock’s complicated relationship with his dad. They provide a delicate touch to address these bleaker aspects of the family’s lives while keeping it warm, lighthearted, and positive.
Speaking of the Johnson dynamic, actors Joseph Lee Anderson and Stacey Leilua shine as Rocky and Ata Johnson respectively. Anderson’s portrayal captures the fading star who is grasping onto those past memories of glory while Leilua is the strong supportive mother that is the glue that keeps them together. They may not have a perfect family life, but they create a loving environment. In addition, Randall Park delivers an entertaining performance as well as the interviewer with his deadpan delivery.
The season premiere of Young Rock is an excellent first episode fueled by humorous and heartwarming writing and moving and entertaining performances.
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