You didn’t think you needed a sitcom based on the childhood of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but here we are. This week NBC announced an 11-episode series entitled Young Rock, written by Fresh Off the Boat co-executive producers Nahnatchka Khan and Jeff Chiang, that will explore the circumstances of Johnson’s upbringing.
Now, you might assume that you have already seen or heard about an autobiographical sitcom based on the formative years of The Rock, but you haven’t. You might be getting it confused with Everybody Hates Chris, the autobiographical sitcom based on the formative years of Chris Rock. Or In The Long Run, the autobiographical sitcom based on the formative years of Idris Elba. Or Nora From Queens, the autobiographical sitcom based on the formative years of Awkwafina. Or Never Have I Ever, the autobiographical sitcom based on the formative years of Mindy Kaling. Or the as-yet-untitled autobiographical sitcom based on the formative years of Sandra Bullock.
It’s a weird subgenre, the celebrity childhood sitcom, but its sudden rise makes perfect sense in the context of 2020. As far as I can tell, we have two things to blame. The first is the fact that there is now far too much television in the world. To watch television now is to be bombarded by too much choice and too little information. Unless you’re abnormally keyed in to the television industry, your decision whether or not to watch a series is often based on your reaction to a static thumbnail image on a Netflix homepage. The best way to cut through that noise is with an established brand.
Imagine, you’re trying to figure out what to watch one evening, and you see the words YOUNG ROCK accompanied by what I assume will be a picture of a 10-year-old boy cocking his eyebrow at the camera. Immediately you know what that show is, and that’s half the battle won. Same with Nora From Queens, or Never Have I Ever, or that new show about the period of time where Harry Styles lived in James Corden’s producer’s attic. These figures all have established fanbases, and they’re much more likely to watch an unimaginative childhood TV show if their heroes are attached.
The second thing to blame is Young Sheldon. Young Sheldon should not have worked. On paper – and often onscreen – it is a lazy, flat, cynically corporate audience retention effort. The Big Bang Theory was coming to an end, and CBS didn’t want its enormous audience to simply dissipate, so it threw together a haphazard sequel and it became the fifth most watched thing on US TV. Young Sheldon almost definitely played a part in getting Young Rock commissioned. Somewhere in Los Angeles, there is a Venn diagram with The Rock on one side, Young Sheldon on the other and a bag of money on the overlap.
However, that isn’t to say that Young Rock – or any of the other autobiographical celebrity childhood sitcoms – will be bad. You would hope that, when a star signs on to make a series about something as precious as their own childhood, they’re not going to let their experiences get squashed into mush for the sake of a TV show. You would hope that they would be full-blown passion projects, full of sharply drawn characters, that tell a story in a voice we recognise.
Everybody Hates Chris is the perfect example. It could have been a simple demonstration of gloopy nostalgia, but for the most part it retained Chris Rock’s sharply honed worldview, and it was all the better for it. In the Long Run, the Idris Elba show, is less successful because it lacks that clearly defined sense of authorship.
Young Rock in particular sounds like it might be great fun, since he basically spent his childhood traveling across America getting arrested. Plus, it will be full of famous people. As Johnson put it during the show’s announcement, “From my heroes Andre the Giant to Muhammad Ali to Ronald Reagan, it was almost as if I’d been told I had the childhood of Forrest Gump.” We may as well watch it. It’s the future of television.