Young Rock is Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s latest venture into television, and although the superstar has often shared his various life experiences growing up, his new NBC series explores his days as a ten-year-old, high school student, and a University of Miami football player in greater detail. Of course, in trademark Johnson fashion, his real-life story is told with a touch of comedy, and that’s where Nahnatchka Khan enters the frame. Khan, who created the successful Fresh Off The Boat sitcom, which was also based on a real story, leads the way and brings her toned-down style of comedy with her. The combination has led to a fun, well-balanced episode 1 of Young Rock that gives you everything you expect and just a tad more.
Episode 1, which is titled “Working the Gimmick,” wastes no time diving into the story and looking back at the young(er) Rock. However, to get there, it cheekily incorporates the storytelling device of Johnson running for President in 2032. Johnson then “gets very real” in an interview with Randall Park (played by Randall Park himself) to prove he is a man of the people. This allows the present-day Johnson to guide the narrative with his small and often fun scenes with Park while also letting the audience hear his voice as we transition from various phases of his youth.
The first episode explores his relationship with his father and the lessons, both good and bad, that he took away from the late great ‘Soulman’ Rocky Johnson. So naturally, this leads to audiences seeing a ten-year-old Dwayne or “Dewey,” amusingly interacting with his extended wrestling family that consists of Iron Sheik, Andre The Giant, Junkyard Dog, and his uncles Afa and Sika (The Wild Samoans). One scene even sees Dewey dropping the f-word (fake), much to the displeasure of the wrestlers. The presentation of wrestling is incredibly accurate in terms of what life was like in the early eighties, as Rocky Johnson explains the message of “working the gimmick” to his son and how he cannot allow fans to see him with uncle Sheik, who is a “bad guy.” The terminology (that’s even in the episode title), the actual wrestling, and the overall world of wrestling are explored with such freedom and respect on this NBC show, it’s an absolute breath of fresh air. Times certainly have changed since Rock’s days in The Mummy Returns, huh?
A surprising aspect of Young Rock is that instead of gradually building to the different phases in Johnson’s young life over the course of the season, episode 1 dives into all three phases. The approach is a much riskier one, as this format combined with the strong presence of the present-day Johnson could have led to an overstuffed and messy narrative. Instead, we beautifully guide from a young Johnson who idolizes his father to a 15-year-old that makes a string of bad choices and then to a young aspiring football player dealing with his father’s silly white lie. It’s smooth, just like The Rock himself. Also, the consistent presence of Johnson and his interview with Park proves to be a source of comfort instead of an annoyance. It ensures fans get their Rock fix while also enabling the superstar to tee up the young Rock’s for their scenes, and thankfully they do not disappoint either.
Young Rock will not set the world on fire when it comes to the show’s style and content. At its heart, it’s another family-themed sitcom that shows the evolution of one man, similar to Fresh Off The Boat and Everybody Hates Chris. So except for perhaps its presentation of professional wrestling, there’s nothing truly ground-breaking, and that might be the main criticism.
All in all, episode 1 of Young Rock proves to be a wonderful marriage of Johnson and Khan’s creative instincts. Much like any project the former WWE champion leads, episode 1 of Young Rock is a fun ride that is full of classic Johnson references and messages like be yourself. However, thanks to Khan, this is a fun story backed by clever writing and a solid emotional core, ensuring The People’s Champ’s story touches your funny bone and your heart.
Young Rock airs on Tuesday’s on NBC.