*First published by Wear Your Voice Magazine, September 7, 2016.*
The premise was ever so promising: Instead of focusing on the stories of rock stars, Showtime’s Roadies puts the backstage members of the crew center stage. Helmed by Cameron Crowe, I imagined a music-driven dramedy and the kind of thoughtful filmmaking for which he was so well known, at least until the Aloha debacle. In case you don’t remember, he whitewashed the casting of an woman of Chinese descent named Allison Ng with Emma Stone; there is not even a hint of “ethnic” about her translucent, freckled skin and red hair.
In the lead-up to the Roadies premiere, Showtime released Sam Jones’s Miles to Go Before I Sleep, a documentary about real-life roadies that was insightful and beautifully feminist, The three main roadies in the documentary are all strong and competent women, and their stories revealed not just their badassery, but also the sexism they deal with on a regular basis in the music industry. Miles to Go Before I Sleep debunked many of the stereotypes we have about rock-star band crews, especially that persistent myth about how sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll go hand in hand. According to this documentary, rock’n’roll these days is long hours and hard work for little pay that people do because they love the music and it shapes their lives in meaningful ways. I thought to myself that if Roadies would be even half as insightful as that 30-minute documentary, we would be in for a monumental treat.
Silly rabbit. Cheap narrative tricks are for kids. And Cameron Crowe seems to be making a habit of wronging the Asian community.
From the first five minutes, Roadies already begins peddling cliches as the Staton-House Band’s tour manager Bill (Luke Wilson) has loud sex with an incredibly young Asian woman Kimberly (Cissy Ly). If it weren’t for her nipple piercings and tattoos, you’d think she was underage, a point that gets commented on ad nauseum. “SHE WAS 22!” Bill screams to anyone who’ll listen. And production manager Shelli (Carla Gugino) excuses his inappropriate behavior with a statement too typical of rape culture: “That’s just Bill being Bill.” Let me just go shower off before I continue.
The show’s horrendous treatment of two (of only three) of its Asian characters doesn’t stop there. It proceeds to instill every ugly Asian stereotype and sexist fetishism into those first two characters. Not only is Bill’s young paramour Kimberly presented as a ditzy chick, she’s also highly sexualized and gives us the only full frontal female nudity we see in the show. Worse, when her father finds out that she had sex with Bill, like a stereotypical Asian dad he goes ballistic, talking about how his genius of a daughter — a 22-year-old paleontologist with a brilliant scientific mind and career ahead of her — has now been spoiled and someone needs to pay.
I don’t know how you can make a character both stupid and a genius at the same time, but Cameron Crowe managed it with the one Asian female in the entire 10-episode run of this disaster of a show. This points to the kind of stereotyping of Asian women we see and hear about all the time — super smart, studious, serious, good at science, behaves herself, a “good girl,” as well as the contradictory, intense, and simultaneous hyper-sexualization of Asian women as sexual fetish objects. The blustering and overprotective Asian father is a laughable caricature, and in fact the joke is on him as everyone mocks him and laughs about his reaction to his daughter’s behavior.
The worst part is, after going to all this trouble to drive the first episode’s arc through these two Asian bodies, we never see them again. Stereotyped, caricatured and then discarded. Classy move, Crowe.
Oh yeah, and the other Asian character? The third one in the entire season? He’s actually a member of the legendary Staton-House Band, Kelton (Jack Yang), and he’s the only band member without lines. He’s in the background of a grand total of three episodes. UGH.
While scrolling through the cast list on IMDB I noticed something else: the band has a stalker, whose full name is Natalie Shin, but the actress playing her (Jaqueline Byers) is white. A Google search later, I learned the original script featured a Korean-American groupie, who was once again whitewashed in a Cameron Crowe production. Interestingly the character of Natalie Shin, like ditzy paleontologist Kimberly, is hypersexualized in every episode in which she appears. She even goes to far as to fellate a prized microphone belonging to the Staton-House Band’s lead singer, and inserts it into her vagina. Knowing this was meant to be another fetishized and sexually objectified Asian woman in the show is straight-up disgusting.
Fool me once, Crowe, it could be a one-off. But twice? Now we’re developing a really shitty and racist pattern.
Which brings me to Puna, played by Native American actor Branscombe Richard. Roadies’s peddling of stereotypes is the gift that keeps on giving, as Puna is presented as an all-seeing, all-knowing, stoic “injun” with supernatural powers: he can sense it in the air when something big is about to happen. He’s clairvoyant. He speaks in monosyllables, and isn’t given any character development, other than he’s an Indian with magical sight — and every so often those “powers” are revealed to be handy apps on his smartphone. It’s supposed to be funny, but it’s completely tone-deaf.
One of the show’s “heroes,” confessed murderer and veteran roadie Phil (Ron White) has a bizarre catchphrase: “I could be chief, or I could be a chief. I choose Indian.” Whatever the hell that means, in the context of so much blasé racism on Roadies and its infuriating treatment of its one Native character, I don’t imagine the phrase has anything positive to offer. Let me also point out the poster of actual Lakota Chief Sitting Bull adorning a hanging dresser in one of the band member’s dressing room: more Native American fetishism for white consumption.
While there is another indigenous cast member, Maori actress Keisha Castle-Hughes from Whale Rider, her character’s name is Donna Mancini, suggesting she’s meant to be white. The character is also the only representation for the LGBTQ community, and we never even get to meet her pregnant partner.
Gooch (Luis Guzman) has the dubious privilege of being the only Latino character on the show, playing one of the tour bus drivers. While his mystical monologues about his history in the music business has moments of vulnerability and beauty, his character became the butt of many jokes when his tall, blonde, busty wife surprise-visits him on tour.
The incredulity stemming from his tourmates that someone “like him” could have landed such a hot spouse is ongoing fodder for Gooch being ridiculed behind his back. Never mind that in a sea of narcissistic jerkoffs Gooch is the only stable, decent, kind and generally good person, but because he’s a short, overweight, middle-aged and not conventionally attractive, his colleagues don’t seem to think he deserves a woman who seems to truly love and support him, her good looks aside.
There are only four African-American actors with recurring speaking parts—Finesse Mitchell as financial team member Harvey, Catero Colbert as band member Tom Staton, Lamon Archey as Detective Rick Davison and Shawn Woods as roadie Lonny — and their characters are one-dimensional and marginal. As we saw with the one Asian member of the Staton-House Band, even though his own name is in the group’s title, Tom Staton is hardly a major character and only appears in five episodes. I can only think their casting was a pathetic and superficial attempt by the showrunners to demonstrate racial diversity in a cast that is overwhelmingly white. I honestly don’t know which is worse: being racially stereotyped for comedic value or being a complete non-entity with a face of color.
What really started to gnaw at me as the episodes went on was the unbearable casualness of all this blatant, outright racism. This is 2016. Why is nobody vetting shows like Roadies? And what kind of bubble are these creators living in that they think it’s acceptable to use racial stereotypes as punchlines to jokes? Oh, how could I forget — that bubble is called white privilege.
After the Ghostbusters reboot showed us you can make a comedy without making fun of people’s appearance, race, sexuality or other personal traits, I have zero patience for stories that take the cheap way out with stereotyped potshots. Viewers deserve better, and so do the actors, most especially the few actors of color who manage to get cast.
The only time a caricature or stereotype is acceptable is in satire, and judging by the Nicholas Cage-level of melodramatic earnestness displayed by the poorly-drawn characters, writing, and general production, Roadies was anything but satire. It’s an indictment of the Hollywood whiteness machine.
Mr. Crowe, if you want to make a show about white people and white people things, just do it. Fuck your tokenism. I need another shower to wash this bullshit off.
And all these issues aside, it’s still a terrible show. The writing is cliched and Velveeta-level cheesy, the performances are forced, and the story arcs were often outright laughable.
Cameron Crowe: DO BETTER. Showtime: DO BETTER. This dumpster fire on skateboard wheels you called Roadies was insulting, and its only redeeming quality was the music. Mr. Crowe, at least we can agree that you haven’t lost your ear for powerful tunes; maybe you should see if one of those reality music television shows is hiring.