Half a century ago this month, a silly sitcom knockoff of A Hard Day’s Night and Help! premiered on NBC. It was called, of course, The Monkees, and “serious” rock fans — a new breed then — detested the show and the band alike. How could anyone be suckered by this pap, just when The Beatles themselves were transitioning from lovable moptops to hippiedom’s answer to James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Ouija boards? But the kiddies flipped for both band and show, and the kiddies were right. Even if the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame famously disagrees, The Monkees are every bit as important in rock history as, say, The Grateful Dead. Besides having a much catchier songbook, they were fun — a key value that was the first casualty of rock’s maturation from commercial fad to quasi-religion.
Despite winning a surprising two Emmys, the show lasted only two seasons, inspiring no imitators even at its peak of popularity (in fact, the first scripted primetime series set in the wacky world of pop music remained damn near the only one for decades). But flash forward to 2016, and TV is chockablock with shows set in or related to the music industry. The latest and most vibrant is Atlanta, Donald Glover’s sociologically intricate, comedic look at up-and-coming rappers in the ATL that is already one of basic cable’s highest-rated shows in years. There is Fox’s exhilarating King Lear-meets-Dynasty hip-hop epic Empire, Netflix’s recent dawn-of-rap series The Get Down and Callie Khouri’s sudsy but sturdy country-music drama Nashville, which moves to CMT early next year after four seasons on ABC. Last spring’s Vinyl — HBO’s $100 million flop about the record business’ coke-addled 1970s bacchanal — laid the biggest egg, and FX’s Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll and Showtime’s Roadies recently bit the dust, but their failures barely seemed to slow things down: Empire co-creator Lee Daniels’ much anticipated girl-group follow-up, Star, is due soon on Fox, and Law & Order’s Dick Wolf (yes, that Dick Wolf) is collaborating with former One Directioner Zayn Malik on Boys, a drama about a boy band for NBC.
Like it or not, we owe the whole glut to American Idol, which spawned multiple copycats — notably, Glee, which made similar use of the Great Pop Songbook in a fetching dramatic context. Today, though, both Nashville and Empire consistently showcase original music that isn’t just a convincing simulation of the real thing: For all intents and purposes, it is the real thing, considering that first Timbaland, and now Rodney Jerkins, oversee Empire’s hip-hop hustle and Nashville cherry-picks new songs from the same smart tunesmiths everyone else relies upon in Music City. Just as Glee did, both shows also peddle their musical wares on multiple platforms, from iTunes and streaming to compilation CDs. There hasn’t been an equivalent TV/music synergy since, well, The Monkees.
Because hip-hop and nouveau country now provide America’s primary cultural soundtrack, the success of Nashville and, especially, Empire and Atlanta, is a reminder that rock has become the dinosaur in the room. Nothing says Jurassic Park like a cable show that treats white-boy guitar rock as if it’s still where the action is. Unlike Vinyl, both Cameron Crowe’s Roadies and Denis Leary’s Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll were ostensibly set in the present, and yet neither show felt remotely contemporary. Both were suffused with nostalgia for rock’s 1970s glory days and their creators’ painful reluctance to concede those days are over.
Even rock fans (the only audience that could conceivably be interested) greeted Leary’s and Crowe’s shows with yawns. But that tepid reception was nothing compared to the brickbats hurled at Vinyl, whose behind-the-scenes marquee names (Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger and Boardwalk Empire’s Terence Winter) made its botch of highly promising material a real puzzler. Yet everything Vinyl did wrong, Baz Luhrmann’s even costlier ($120 million) The Get Down did right, including, perhaps, appearing on freewheeling Netflix instead of suffocatingly prestige-minded HBO. Set in the same city and the same era as Vinyl, it featured a similar mix of genuine and invented music pioneers. But what a difference the right attitude makes.
The Get Down earned mixed reviews (and initial viewership reportedly was mediocre; Netflix does not release audience numbers). But Luhrmann was mythologizing and aggrandizing hip-hop’s origins to convey the excitement of the birth of an art form that’s still bursting with vitality today (certainly not a claim any show set in Rock World can make) and doing it with an effervescence and cockiness not too unlike early rap music’s own. Empire and Nashville don’t pass themselves off as docudramas either, and their embrace of souped-up melodrama is an asset to both. If Empire is the more dynamic show these days, that’s partly because Connie Britton’s old-guard country singer and Hayden Panettiere’s new-horizons Nashville diva don’t have many surprises left for us. Terrence Howard’s rapper-turned-record-mogul Lucious Lyon and his family still keep viewers guessing what makes them all tick.
No less important, Empire’s gaudy but expert fusion of race, class and cultural conflicts is unprecedented in primetime broadcast drama, and largely was on cable too, at least until Atlanta came along. But besides being about music that still excites a modern audience, the real edge that Daniels’, Glover’s and Khouri’s shows have on the competition is that they’re conceived as entertainment for a big public, not as self-serious Great Art. In other words, they’re, ahem, commercial, just like the music biz itself. It’s enough to make you remember that delivering brainy fun to a mass audience was supposed to be pop’s main purpose all along.
Tom Carson is the former TV and movie critic for GQ and Esquire. This article originally appeared in the Oct. 8 issue of Billboard.