With "Young Rock," is Dwayne Johnson starting his presidential campaign 10 years early?

By placing a fictional version of his life inside his dream of running for president, The Rock takes a new risk

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published February 16, 2021 8:15PM (EST)

Dwayne Johnson in "Young Rock" (Frank Masi/NBC)
Dwayne Johnson in "Young Rock" (Frank Masi/NBC)

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has not publicly ruled out a presidential run. This is an understandable strategy from a man keenly aware of his popularity and the power of projecting the right image, which in Johnson's case is a sort of a souped-up man of the people.

He's the chosen family-friendly hero of our times for precisely that reason, with some version of himself available and accessible to everyone, whether via "The Fast and the Furious" franchise or "Jumanji," by way of his inspirational reality competition "The Titan Games" or Elizabeth Warren's favorite HBO show "Ballers."

Setting limits on possibilities is precisely the opposite of Johnson's brand, and that's why NBC's "Young Rock" by its very existence may be the canniest commentary going about the perilous intersection of fame, personality and political power. It might be that or an inoffensive sitcom with big tent ambitions that takes a few episodes to organize its approach.

Or it could end up being something media reporters look back on from 2032 with some measure of self-loathing for not recognizing it as a slicker replay of 2015, with NBC once again having been tricked into providing free campaign advertising for a guy mounting a charm offensive. The difference is this time the candidate in question is on the company payroll.

This is a whole lot of forehead-furrowing paranoia to drape onto an otherwise harmless, heartwarming family comedy from Johnson and co-showrunners Nahnatchka Khan and Jeff Chiang, who worked together on "Fresh Off the Boat."

I'll also confess that some of this apprehension is for display only. Just as Johnson can sculpt and oil his powers of enticement with equivalent levels of care with which he treats his physique, it's only fair for writers to at the very least make a show of assessing of Johnson's motivations here.

Maybe "Young Rock" is simply a "The Wonder Years" built for 2021 and purveying universally relatable life lessons in primetime. That it is also loosely based on the childhood of a real person with a gigantic fandom isn't original either, as anyone who's seen "Everybody Hates Chris" can attest.

However, Chris Rock was never seen looking back on this pre-adolescent awkwardness during campaign stops in 2032, which is a lot closer than you may realize.

This not-at-all-meant-to-be-taken-literally-or-seriously writing of Johnson's future endeavors has him traveling the nation in a bus emblazoned with a hologram of himself winking and smiling at The People.

For at least two stops (episodes) in this future Randall Park interviews him as part of an "all-access" coverage deal Park's show has with Johnson's campaign, and in their conversations, Johnson comes off as a personable "man for all mankind" figure who despite his obvious success is quick to point out that he's no better than anyone else. "Nobody's perfect and we all screw up. I just happened to screw up a little bit more than most."

This, by the way, probably would have been a smarter campaign slogan than the one on the side of his bus: "Just hang on, I'm coming."

Depending on the level of PTSD your body is still holding onto after the last five years, all of this is either fun or may feel just a little too soon to merrily joke about. Johnson would be the highest-paid celebrity in Hollywood for two years running if a critical mass of Americans didn't love him. Flip this and you have another celebrity winning the presidency, and an actual wrestler this time instead of a fool pretending to be one.

Are we really ready for The Johnson Presidency: Redux? And what are the chances that this President Johnson avoids impeachment? Andrew Johnson couldn't manage to.

The campaign narrative conceit distracts from lovely family relationships at the solid center of the show, namely Johnson's loving ties to wrestler father Rocky Johnson (Joseph Lee Anderson) and the close bond he shares with his mother Ata (Stacey Leilua).

A much more troublesome distraction presents itself in the pilot where Khan, who wrote the episode, attempts to herd the four timelines in which the series takes place into one cohesive unit. The result is a  disorderly cage match between four time periods in Johnson's life, each competing for dominance.

Taken separately the three stages of Young Rock serve distinct purposes, each contributing to the overall charismatic mien that we connect with (and that sells movie tickets) in present-day and 2032-era Johnson.

First and all at once, we meet Dwayne in 1982 at the age of 10 (Adrian Groulx), where Rocky is a star wrestler in a Hawaiian wrestling outfit run by Ata's mother Lia (Ana Tuisila). Then we leap off those ropes into 1987, when the family is struggling to make ends meet and teen Dwayne (Bradley Constant) has taken up his father's habit of exaggerating his success with a side of shoplifting.

Two episodes provided to critics focus solely on these timelines and this streamlining hints at the show finding its stride. Before it can settle into this rhythm, though, we also zip onward to 1990, where Dwayne (Uli Latukefu) has a chance to remake his image at the University of Miami by muscling his way into the starting ranks of the football team.

Nobody can deny that Johnson has an incredible story apart from a family legacy connecting him to pro-wresting titans.

Its tough to find much fault in its foundation of wholesome nostalgia, which receives a fuller airing in the second episode when Constant's Dwayne learns a lesson in respect and dignity, sticking by his down-on-his-luck dad when he's reduced to providing live entertainment at the local flea market while Ata cleans houses.

People struggling to wrap their arms around initial episodes of "Young Rock" may find a reason to stick around in the show's outstanding crew of actors impersonating such '80s-era wrestling legends as Ric Flair and Iron Sheik. That much the show nails straightaway, and a sixth episode adventure featuring a day out with Andre the Giant (Matthew Willig) is especially enchanting. Willig channels the lovable tenderness of the towering icon which a gentle joy capable of melting away all doubts about this show.

In those moments we see what "Young Rock" may yet become. What plans its creator has for the future remains unclear; he's a registered independent who endorsed Joe Biden in this election. He also appeared in grand and vocal fashion at the 2000 Republican convention. And some of the greeting card wisdom he drops during his fantasy campaign stops, like his devotion to valuing "unique people with wildly different points of view," has a tinny sound to it these post-insurrection days. Like wrestling itself, there's nothing insincere his devotion to that. But he may be working the gimmick a little hard right now.

"Young Rock" premieres Tuesday, Feb. 16 at 8 p.m. on NBC.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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