The eighth episode of “Young Rock” finds the show’s protagonist, a 15-year-old Dwayne Johnson, in a classic sitcom predicament. He has pretended to be rich to impress a classmate named Karen, who has the blond hair and movie-grade makeup that teenage boys dream of. Now she is coming over for dinner and expecting to see a palace; in reality, Young Rock is squeezed into a small apartment with his parents, who struggle to pay the rent. The show, which just finished its first season on NBC, follows the actor’s childhood growing up around the professional wrestling business, back when his father, Rocky Johnson, was a star. In a bind, Young Rock turns to his father for the sort of advice only he can provide.
“I understand,” Rocky says with paternal knowingness and a roguish smile that implies he has been here before. “You were working a gimmick, and you cornered yourself.”
In pro wrestling, working a gimmick is the tapestry of untruths you speak and act into reality — the commitment to character that propels the most gifted fabulists into superstardom. The all-American Hulk Hogan persuaded children to eat their vitamins; the Undertaker somehow made people think he really was an undead mortician; Rocky, who dressed fantastically and went by “Soulman,” was the coolest guy around. (It wasn’t more complicated than that.) It’s why, on the show, he leaves the wrestling arena in a fancy Lincoln Continental, only to check into a run-down motel for the night — he has created a high-rolling persona for the fans, and he must keep it intact. And it’s why he dismisses Young Dwayne’s concerns that maybe he should just come clean with Karen. “Wrong, son,” he says. “What you gotta do is work the gimmick even harder.”
Professional wrestling is a form of entertainment that invites viewers to understand its fictive properties but nevertheless still buy into its dramas; in fact, the knowledge that it’s all constructed quickly gives way to a form of meta-appreciation. And unlike actors in a conventional TV drama, wrestlers are their characters, even in real life. This informal contract between performer and audience to never break character means that no matter where Rocky Johnson goes, he’s still recognizable as himself and must behave accordingly.
With “Young Rock,” Johnson may very well be trying to find out if this alchemy can be performed for real: if a fiction can be created in front of an audience and then imposed on reality. The framing device for the show, the reason we’re learning about Young Rock’s life, is that Johnson is on the campaign trail for the 2032 presidential race, where he has a real shot to win. Like all coming-of-age stories — and most instantly remaindered political memoirs — “Young Rock” purports to trace how Johnson’s upbringing turned him into the man he is today: wrestling champion, the highest-paid actor on the planet, maybe a future president. Roll your eyes, but accept the possibility. Ever since Donald Trump was elected, plenty of charismatic celebrities have been floated as potential candidates. More than the other contenders — Oprah, Mark Cuban — Johnson has gained real traction, even going so far as to publicly state that he wouldn’t run in 2020 but that it was something he “seriously considered.”
Johnson passes every cosmetic test: handsome, tall, voice like a strong handshake. He’s the star of several film franchises that future voters will have grown up watching. And while a different show might play all this for laughs, “Young Rock” frequently lapses into what messaging for Johnson’s actual campaign might sound like. It’s never specified whether he’s running as a Democrat or a Republican; he presents as a third-way politician who just wants America to push past its divisions. Candidate Rock is a little like Michael Bloomberg, but with more convincing platitudes and even better delts.
One episode shows Young Rock watching his grandmother’s wrestling company struggle to adjust to contemporary trends, something that leads candidate Rock to sympathize with everyday Americans concerned about their jobs being replaced by automation. Another ties his childhood friendship with Andre the Giant to his selection of a female general (played by Rosario Dawson) as his running mate — because, just like Andre, the general will “always push me to consider other points of view.” (She had previously endorsed his opponent.) Celebrity politicians, like Trump or Arnold Schwarzenegger, can usually skip this self-mythologizing process; the reason they’re running is that people already know who they are. But on “Young Rock,” Johnson runs a fairly conventional campaign; he even engenders a small controversy when he eats a Philly cheesesteak improperly. The insistence that his candidacy would be in any way conventional only heightens the sense that the show is a road map for an actual run.
Back in 1987, Young Rock takes his father’s advice to double down on the gimmick in order to impress Karen. It backfires when she sees through the ruse, because for most people charisma can transform reality only so far — and even wrestlers run into this barrier, once their stars fade a little, or their addictions take root, or they simply grow older. Wrestling history is littered with ignoble ends and performers who couldn’t quite accept that the show was over. But there’s one — the only one who has ever lived, actually — who has kept doubling down and seen his star ascend accordingly.
For most people, charisma can only transform reality so far — and even wrestlers run into this barrier.
Johnson followed his father into professional wrestling, then left the W.W.E. at the apex of his success to get started in Hollywood; he latched himself to the “Fast & Furious” franchise, always playing some version of his stentorian, trash-talking wrestling persona, until he became a movie star in his own right; when his name started coming up as a potential presidential candidate, he indulged the rumors rather than say, “Wait a minute, I’m the guy who says, ‘Can you smell what the Rock is cooking?’” And here he is now, maybe sort-of speaking his fictional presidential campaign into reality, a compelling “will he or won’t he” drama that’s up there with any of his best wrestling or Hollywood stories.
“Young Rock” has been modestly successful, averaging more than four million viewers per episode. It’s not Trump’s “The Apprentice,” which was a genuine hit for a decade. But Johnson has many other concurrent efforts to expand his fame across American life: A new “Fast & Furious” movie comes out in June; his relaunch of the much-maligned X.F.L., which he purchased last year, is still in the works; there are rumors that he’ll return to the W.W.E. for a final match. Nobody has ever taken this path to the Oval Office, but you could have said that about Trump, who also understood the importance of committing to character. When your supporters want to believe what you’re saying, there’s no limit to how far the gimmick can go.
Source photographs: Mark Taylor/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank, via Getty Images; David M. Benett/WireImage, via Getty Images; PM Images, via Getty Images.