If you're even a casual fan of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, you've probably heard him tell his origin story at least once. It's become synonymous with who he is as a public figure -- the "seven bucks moment" that altered the course of his life and made him the phenomenally successful actor/wrestler/producer/tequila salesman he is today. Basically, he was cut from the Canadian Football League at 22 years old and was sent back home with, you guessed it, only seven dollars in his pocket. In that same vein, Johnson's public persona often takes on that of a motivational coach -- one of his favorite Instagram hashtags is #HardestWorkersInTheRoom, which he loves to use under videos of himself at the gym -- and it's a role he clearly works hard to maintain. So it only makes sense that Young Rock, the new sitcom based on Johnson's adolescence, would be the latest effort in his campaign (this is a pun, but we'll get to that) to become the most inspiring figure in the world.
Young Rock, premiering Feb. 16 on NBC, is set in the near future. It's 2032 and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is still as massively famous and widely adored as he is in 2021. He's filled the time by doing films like Jumanji 5 (in which he throws Ludacris off a bridge), a KISS biopic (in which he plays Gene Simmons), and a Matilda remake (which "lacked the necessary violence to be entertaining"), and has now decided to make good on an idea he actually has been considering for a while: running for president of the United States. But with a bid for office comes inevitable, widespread scrutiny, and after officially securing his nomination, Johnson is faced with accusations that he, a celebrity, is out of touch and incapable of relating to the average voter. He takes to the classic cable news sit-down (hosted by Randall Park, who, in a delightfully silly detail, has quit acting himself to become a TV pundit) to assure voters of his humble beginnings as an average kid who struggled to fit in, just like everyone else. "To understand me, you gotta understand where I came from," Johnson tells Park. The sentiment is one that the comedy, based on the three episodes made available to critics, aims for without ever fully achieving.
Co-created by Johnson and Fresh Off the Boat's Nahnatchka Khan, Young Rock stars three different young Rocks, played at 10 years old by Adrian Groulx, at 15 by Bradley Constant, and at 18 by Uli Latukefu, all of whom are funny and appropriately Rock-ish in their roles as the sitcom cycles through the decades. But the draw of a show about The Rock is, of course, The Rock himself. We see and hear from him frequently throughout the episodes as he acts as de facto narrator, attempting to pull back the curtain on everything the world doesn't know about him. He introduces us to his father, the legendary wrestler Rocky "Soulman" Johnson (Joseph Lee Anderson), his mother Ata (Stacey Leilua), and the various characters who populated his youth, including his grandmother, the wrestling promoter Lia Maivia (Ana Tuisila), and family friend Andre the Giant (Matthew Willig). What this show succeeds in is its earnest sweetness, its (if not laugh-out-loud) easy, crowd-pleasing comedy, and its thoughtful explorations of growing up poor and, in the case of Rocky, aging out of your professional prime.
Where it lacks is in depth. Because Young Rock operates under the idea that Johnson is being wholly and completely candid, it's easy to poke holes in its muscular exterior. Despite the fact that it's literally about a man running for president, Young Rock is not a political show. In real life, Johnson has been famously careful about discussing his political leanings (he endorsed Joe Biden in the 2020 election and in the same breath stressed that he identifies as a centrist), but he manages to side-step any questions about his party or actual policies here by simply not discussing them at all, at least in the first few episodes. That would perhaps be fine if it dug deeper in other places, but Young Rock never quite succeeds at fully inviting the audience in to meet Johnson the man.
He's spoken publicly in the past about his troubled young adulthood, about getting arrested for stealing and fighting, and to its credit, Young Rock doesn't shy away from those details. "I told you I was going to get very real with this thing," Johnson says as he introduces the story of how he began shoplifting as a teenager, much to the concern of his harried publicist, who repeatedly interrupts his anecdotes about his theft. It's an odd detail, that his fictional publicist thinks he's being too open in discussing the truth of his past, and it made me realize that the problem with Young Rock is that Johnson himself -- the hulking, endlessly likable one we all recognize; Adult Rock, if you will -- is a pretty inscrutable presence on it. That's not to say he isn't a joy to watch: he brings such ebullience to his scenes, with a friendly gravitas that makes you remember (in case you somehow forgot) why he's a globally beloved movie star. As he makes his fake (please, let it stay that way) bid for President of the United States, he's virtually flawless. Winsome and funny, he has a distinct way of charming everyone around him that feels very true to real life but not all that compelling in the context of a TV show.
This alternate universe version of Johnson is trying to convince the American people that he's not the out of touch celebrity they think he is, but instead a legitimate politician, but it's not fully clear to me whether he's succeeding at it. Even in the third episode, when he introduces his running mate (played by Rosario Dawson) and reporters begin questioning their wildly differing political opinions, we don't find out what those opinions are -- instead, he tells a heartwarming story about the time he was babysat by Andre the Giant and how it taught him about the importance of seeing things from other people's perspective. Young Rock wants to inspire you, but only in the vaguest of ways, and it can verge on after school special territory: In one episode, teen Dwayne is taught about the importance of family, and caring about the people who care about you, by a homeless man sleeping in the back of his beat-up car. (I don't have an explanation for that, sorry.) Moments that should land as emotional heavy-hitters tend to just feel like extensions of Johnson's Instagram posts: superficially motivating but always holding the viewer at a distance.
With that said, the show certainly has some high points. All the wrestling scenes are as exciting and captivating as real wrestling should be, and it has a lot to say to critics of professional wrestling who view it as merely "fake" -- which, as Young Rock tells us, is the worst thing you could possibly say. The cast is solid, filled out with relatively unknown Black, Samoan, and Polynesian actors, and Anderson's performance is particularly interesting. The show is understandably revelatory of Rocky, which makes sense (the real Soulman passed away in 2020, plus Johnson is an executive producer), so even his faults -- his tendency to exaggerate his successes, his frequent absences from his family's life, his inability to accept failure -- are examined with compassion.
The relationship between father and son isn't portrayed as easy; Anderson plays Rocky as posturing and energetic, and thanks to his wrestling career, a trained performance artist who is able to continually placate his wife and son. In one episode, 18-year-old Dwayne attends his first day at the University of Miami, and quickly finds out that his father was one step ahead of him, lying to the other students about his achievements (specifically, that he was famous enough to be on a Wheaties box) before Dwayne could even meet them. "All you've got to do is work the gimmick," Rocky explains. "There is no gimmick to work," Dwayne stresses, before hanging up. He makes the decision not to buy into his father's lie, but to do something he knows he can do: out-bench press everyone else right out of the gate. "That's when I found my version of working the gimmick," Johnson says, back in the present. "Be me, but with the dial turned up to 11." Park is visibly blown away by his resolve and commitment, and the show wants the audience to be, too.
Three episodes aren't enough to tell whether Young Rock is just another version of Johnson working the gimmick, or if he really does plan on showing parts of himself beyond what we already know. Still, fans shouldn't expect any revelations, or to leave with a brand new understanding of their favorite celebrity, but it has a lot of heart and might even make you want to go lift a dumbbell. "There's still so much that I haven't told anyone," Johnson says in the first episode, and I think that remains true even after making this show. Unlike Dwayne Johnson himself, Young Rock has some growing to do.
Young Rock premieres Tuesday, Feb. 16 at 8/7c on NBC.
TV Guide rating: 3.5/5