This is not Spinal Tap. Not Niggaz With Hats, The Rutles, or CB4. For the most part, those were established comedians bringing laughs to the music world, cloaked in realism. Z Rock is a show that drives music into unforeseen, raunchy, awesome comedy. The documentary-style "talking head" gimmick is employed in an unfortunate way, but it's seven thorns in a garden of roses. In the past decade, prominent cable stations have unevenly surpassed regular networks in terms of originality and emotional response. Now that indie channels are producing and distributing shows, there are more to watch, and as a gauge of quality: none of them are reality shows. Z Rock just started its second season on IFC, and you should already be watching.
The show makes stars of two brothers and a childhood friend:. Paul Zablidowsky, singer and fro-meister; David Zablidowsky, band slut; and Joey Cassata, drummer with a needy girlfriend. The theme song tells the tale. They're a power trio who strive for the rock'n'roll life as ZO2, but have to make ends meet playing kids' birthday parties as the Z Brothers. It serves as the show's premise, but is the non-fiction origin behind this 3 album deep group, whose sound is like demo-Shinedown or an American Wolfmother in London. You won't believe how well they, especially Paulie Z., can sing. Less so after you hear their wonderfully natural Brooklyn accents, which are great unplanned perks. Each member is quite talented with his instrument as well. The songs aren't really my cup of tea, but there's no denying they're catchy crowd-pleasers.
This first season chronicles the fictional path of the band's push for fame. It might be fictional. There's lots of sleeping around, and guest stars play made-up roles, so I'm sure it's not all legit. But our three leads would have you believe otherwise. Even at their worst acting, they're just real people, which is what makes the show unique. There are few things more uncomfortable than watching actors pretend to play music. Here, you get real music from talented artists, plus a boatload of comedy. Most impressive is how inspired and original the kid-focused music is from the Z Brothers day gig. Beyond inane song subjects like feline allergies and the act of circumcision, it is again the genuine talent and showmanship that make these mini-performances transcend the kid-friendly filler that other shows might shoehorn in. It's all of the entertainment with none of the condescension. Another surprisingly positive aspect is while larger story-driven scenes are scripted, many incidental scenes are improvised by the cast, leading to unexpected laughs and realistic reactions from all involved. They joke around like you do with your friends.
Earlier, I mentioned the documentary angle, which is the single inconsistency. At no point is a camera crew referred to; it's just your "way better than studio audience" multi-camera sitcom. Yet each episode includes cut-aways of the band speaking directly to the audience, always in the same static setting. These shots were obviously all filmed at the same time (clothes don't change), yet they continuously speak of things in present tense. The same goes for their manager, Dina, played pitch-perfect by snarky stand-up queen Lynne Koplitz. The spots do a bland job of addressing what is already being shown to you. It might work as a Past Episode Recap, but there's already one of those. They really serve to show that the three guys aren't practiced line readers. I can't explain why the gimmick bothers me so much. It feels unnecessary is all. But enough with the negativity.
The show expertly uses many of its improbable guest stars as necessary plot devices rather than simply one-offs. Ever the clever performer in an improv setting, Greg Giraldo is psychotic record producer Harry Braunstein, who could hold the key to ZO2's success. Episode One shows brother David and Mrs. Braunstein "mouthing off", thus setting up a season long story arc of debauchery and comedic suspense. Joan Rivers has her best guest work in ages in a recurring role as herself playing manager Dina's aunt. Her fame is used as a possible springboard for the boys' breakthrough, always with comical results. Blues Traveler's John Popper is bizarrely uncomfortable sending himself up as a smarmy, abrasive perverted asshole. He also plays several episodes and has a hand in the band's success, just not as expected. Club owner Neil, stand-up's Big Jay Oakerson, is hetero, but homo-erotically entranced by Paulie Z. Dee Snider is Paulie Z.'s muse in a rowboat. Dave Navarro is a video director who screams curses at a young girl. My mind was beyond blown when the most emotional fifteen seconds of the entire season came from none other than Gilbert Gottfried. That's a polarizing statement.
Z Rock's tone is similar to shows such as Curb Your Enthusiasm, It's Always Sunny in Philidelphia, and The IT Crowd, in that restricted direction allows for situations and jokes to play without visual distractions. If cursing was bleeped, and the minor nudity was covered, I'm not certain this would be a bad show for viewers of all ages. Some jokes are purposefully crude, and the sex/infidelity plotlines are probably too heavy-handed, but it shouldn't be ignored that a great deal of the show revolves around children, and they're on screen a lot. And more importantly, they're treated maturely. The show is also very rewarding to its female cast, including Joey C.'s girlfriend/fiance as the money hungry Yoko of the group. True, a few women are used solely as eye candy, but for the most part, the attention to strong, centered female roles really rounds the show out, and doesn't exclude anyone as potential audience.
Not everybody has IFC, and those that do might not even know Z Rock exists. Thus, the fact that the DVDs are available allows the show's rating to falter only slightly as the DVD rating. I like the shows that much. Which is lucky, because the "special" features are anything but. Don't quote me on this, but I think all of the features come from aired IFC footage.
There's the fifteen minute long "Behind the Mayhem", which is two-thirds clips interspersed with a lot of rehashing the premise and themes of the show. As repetitive as it is, the behind the scenes footage of Paulie, David, and Joey are sometimes as amusing as the show itself. The comfort and familiarity between them is something that should leave the majority of current television programs green with envy. Their brotherhood should automatically warrant this, but I still cringe when Owen and Luke Wilson appear on screen together, so it's not just about blood relation. The "Montage" feature extends upon this, though sadly only for a few minutes. It's mostly the cast goofing around on set, but not quite an outtakes collection. "Brooklyn Meets Hollywood" and "Behind the Scenes" are actually just edited sections of the longer "Behind the Mayhem." It feels like a major cheat, since only about 15 seconds between the two of them is new footage. "Advice from Joan Rivers" is almost the same thing. Just an extended take of things we've seen in edited clips elsewhere. Not too great. The features end on a show trailer and a music video. The video is entertaining, though redundantly prefaced with show clips that concern it. So despite looking like a solid bonus package, it's best to just hit "Play All" on the episodes and leave it at that.
The show is presented in 1.70:1 anamorphic widescreen, which is fabulous. Shows set in New York should never sacrifice frame space. I'm hard pressed to recall many outdoor night shots, so a lot of scenes are either in sunlight or high florescents, keeping everything bright and cheery. There are English and Spanish subtitles to read along to. The show has Dolby 5.1 surround sound, and that may be why it's so easy to notice the dozens and dozens of edits when there is heavy dialogue. Such is the problem with ad-libbed scenes, I suppose. This is balanced by ZO2's thick and dynamic sound when music is used as the sound track.
Half-hour comedies seem to be going the way of the portable CD player. Still useful and manufactured, but deemed irrelevant by much of the population. Z Rock is here to tip the scales back in the direction of funny. And they're doing it in three part harmonies. And they might be doing it with your wife, because you're so busy watching the DVD. You were warned.