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Review

Denis Leary's 'Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll' shows some promise

Denis Leary has a new show, "Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll," in which he stars, and which he created and writes and on at least one occasion directs. It premieres Thursday on FX, previously the home of Leary's fine firehouse dramedy "Rescue Me"; as the borrowed title indicates — here's another quarter in your heavenly tip jar, Mr. Ian Dury — the dysfunctional hero of the new series is very much the hopefully comical cousin of the last.

Leary plays Johnny Rock, the hapless, feckless, alcoholic lead singer of the Heathens, a band that broke up on the day its first album was released, in 1992, but still legendary for its riffs and soul and self-destructive antics. Of all the Heathens, whose number also included guitarist Flash (John Corbett), the Keith to Johnny's Mick, bassist Rehab (John Ales), drummer Bam Bam (Robert Kelly) and backup singer Ava (Elaine Hendrix), Johnny was the most trouble; 23 years later, he remains his own worst enemy.

The series begins as a daughter Johnny never knew he had (Elizabeth Gillies as Gigi) comes to town hoping to reform the Heathens as her backing band and to get her father and Flash — who, apart from a few good memories and a mutual acknowledgment of their combined brilliance, have nothing but spite between them — to write her material.

"I want to sing real songs with real musicians," she tells them.

It is possibly not coincidental that the year of the Heathens' implosion is also the year that Leary blew up big, through a series of interstitial "bumpers" that ran on MTV, 60-second rants in which he rapped like Andy Rooney on speed: "You know what I don't want on MTV? Aerosmith, Vanilla Ice and Cher. No Crosby, no Stills, no Nash. No bald guys, no fat guys, no fat bald guys, no rock stars who look like history professors, OK..."

As Johnny, Leary reprises some of that cultural vitriol here, albeit at a slower clip and lower burn, with swipes at Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Auto-Tune, Brooklyn hipsters, Brody Jenner, Twitter and Radiohead ("Every time I hear a Radiohead song I feel like I'm failing the SATs all over again"). But we are meant to take him with a grain, or a bigger grain — a block, even — of salt, as for all the assertions of his genius, most of which come from his own mouth, he is a clown, a serial loser with a David Bowie mullet that was already out of style in 1992.

I like Leary, and what he seems to be trying to make here — "Spinal Tap" as a basically warm-hearted family comedy — is not a bad idea, even if "Spinal Tap" itself has made all subsequent rock comedies essentially redundant. But having watched five episodes twice over, I've struggled with this show, its lurches in tone and an accelerated narrative that seems at times to leave holes in the storytelling, gaps that draw you up short where you should just be sailing along.

Still, if it's a bit of a mess, it's not an uninteresting one. The "documentary" clips of the band in its younger days are well done, and there are some good performances; Gillies, who comes out of the Nickelodeon teens series "Victorious," has a nice way about her, especially in her looser moments. Hendrix, Kelly and Ales, perhaps because they do not have to convince of their genius, fare very well, and get most of the funniest lines — or make the most lines funniest, maybe.

And there is some authority to the rock. Corbett actually has made records and toured with a band; Leary (working again with longtime collaborator Craig Phillips) has written and recorded songs and performed them in public; Afghan Whigs/Twilight Singers frontman Greg Dulli, who also appears on camera to help recount the Heathens' legend, helped produce the music.

Nevertheless, the show has the feel of a first record from a band that might have better albums down the road, a hodgepodge of influences and ideas not resolved into a coherent voice — the kind of thing I'd call worth checking out without going so far as to recommend it.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll'

Where: FX

When: 10 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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