Roush Review: ‘Young Rock’s Wonder Years and ‘Kenan’s Feel-Good Family

Young Rock Dwayne Johnson Kenan Thompson
Review
Frank Masi/NBC; Casey Durkin/NBC

When we’re familiar enough with a celebrity to be on a first-name (or nickname) basis, they’ve probably already passed the comfort-level test. And so it is with two new comedies on NBC.

Before he earned international fame as “The Rock,” Dwayne Johnson apparently came of age so often he needs three younger actors to relive his rites of passage in Young Rock, an autobiographical sitcom for NBC.

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'I give it up to single parents. There are times when my wife goes on vacation for two days and everything falls apart.'

Most appealing is bright-eyed 10-year-old “Dewey” (adorable Adrian Groulx) in Hawaii, raised in the early 1980s among a colorful group of legendary pro wrestlers whom he worships. Most problematic is his sullen 15-year-old self (Bradley Constant) in Pennsylvania, where his family relocates in tougher financial times and where Dwayne struggles to fit in, shoplifting designer clothes to impress the stuck-up girls. Somewhere in between is 18-year-old Dwayne (Uli Latukefu), a hopeful and hard-working college football recruit at the University of Miami.

The ambitious Young Rock jumps around between these timelines from week to week, the storytelling hampered by a smug framing device of the adult Johnson running for president in 2032. (Several episodes feature actor Randall Park, late of Fresh Off the Boat, playing himself as a reporter, which is as awkward as it sounds.) Even when the life lessons Johnson shares are meant to be uplifting and inspiring, the rah-rah setup makes this look an awful lot like a vanity project.

Young Rock comes most fully alive in the stories involving the youngest Rock-to-be, warmly re-creating his charming dad Rocky’s (Joseph Lee Anderson) rambunctious pro-wrestling world. There’s a lovely episode in which little Dewey spends a memorable day with André the Giant (Matthew Willig), a parable about how to look at life from new perspectives.

Young Rock Rocky Dwayne Ata

(Mark Taylor)

One takeaway from the show: Beware the “F-word” of “fake,” which is strictly forbidden when applied to wrestling. I’d settle for that other “F”-word — “funny” — which is in too short supply.

Which brings us to Kenan, a prime-time showcase for longtime Saturday Night Live star Kenan Thompson, whose genial personality is well matched for a sweet family sitcom. Cutting edge it isn’t, but funny? Absolutely. Thompson is a natural as, who else, Kenan, a widowed dad who’s juggling single parenthood of two precocious daughters with hosting duties on a ridiculous daytime talk show in Atlanta. Like Walton Goggins’ Wade in The Unicorn, he’s a sympathetic character, still processing his grief and enduring the eccentricities of those who are trying to help.

In a very pleasant surprise, Miami Vice legend Don Johnson offers terrific support as his father-in-law Rick, a too-cool-for-school saxophonist who lives to needle Kenan while soaking up love from his granddaughters. (My favorite gag in the pilot shows Rick placing bets on This Is Us plot twists.) Thompson’s SNL co-star Chris Redd mugs mercilessly as his hard-partying brother sidekick, but even this stock character is viewed affectionately.

Chris Redd Kenan Thompson Don Johnson

(Casey Durkin/NBC)

And lest you think Kenan is all schmaltz and hugs, consider the back story of how Kenan met his late wife Cori (Niccole Thurman), when they co-starred on a much lesser sitcom playing mother and son, despite only being three years apart in age. Seen in flashback clips, their chemistry is so unsettling it would be right at home on one of the better Saturday Night Live skits.

Young Rock, Series Premiere, Tuesday, February 16, 8/7c, NBC

Kenan, Series Premiere, Tuesday, February 16, 8:30/7:30c, NBC