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They're just rolling with rock's punches

A real band, Z02, stars as the fictional Z Brothers who'll do anything for the dream -- even if it means singing about chicken for the under-6 set.

August 23, 2008|Robert Lloyd | Times Television Critic

Ever since "A Hard Day's Night" revealed the Beatles as Marx Brothers, rock and comedy have walked hand in hand. By most yardsticks of normalcy, rock is an absurd business, and one that comes ready-made with tales of anarchic camaraderie, bad behavior and fighting the odds. (Which sometimes include a band's lack of talent or brains.) In movies or TV shows about rock 'n' roll, the musicians are usually struggling, stuck somewhere short of stardom.

So it is in "Z Rock." A new 10-part, half-scripted sitcom, premiering Sunday on IFC, it concerns fictionalized exploits of a Brooklyn hard-rock band (the real-life ZO2) working by day playing kids' parties (as the real-life Z Brothers). But unlike, say, Dan Zanes, whose moderate success with the Del Fuegos in the 1980s turned out to be a pale prelude to his current superstardom among the sippy-cup set and their cooler parents, the members of ZO2 regard the kiddie stuff as a day job on the way to a "record deal." (In the real world, ZO2 has now left the tot circuit -- where their high-end clients included Robert De Niro, Michael J. Fox and Al Roker -- and released their second and latest album themselves.) If none of their songs for adults, to use the term loosely, are quite as memorable as the one they sing about the chicken, there is nothing substandard about their melodic metallic rock.

Their TV show, which might make the band more famous than its music, is lightweight, sometimes flat and sometimes embarrassing, with none of the deadpan brilliance of "Flight of the Conchords" or the sophisticated sitcomedy of the late "The Chris Isaak Show." (If anyone would care to bring that series out on DVD, I will be your friend forever.)

At times, it embodies that "Spinal Tap" confusion between sexy and sexist. But it is not without a certain lunkheaded, mook charm that is enhanced by the unschooled acting of its stars: nice Jewish boys Paulie (guitar, vocals) and David Zablidowsky (bass) and nice Italian boy Joey Cassata (drums).

The Harpo-haired Paulie is the best actor among them, and has been given the most to do. (He is somewhat reminiscent of Robert Hegyes as Epstein on "Welcome Back, Kotter," but taller.) Although he seems nominally to be the leader, each member gets a turn to be more responsible or ridiculous than the others. (For his part, Paulie has cut his pubic hair into the shape of a Z -- "It's a promotional tool," he insists.) They are all, in spite of the bad language and references to oral sex, basically as clean as the Monkees.

New York comics fill in the spaces around them. Lynne Koplitz plays their high-strung manager, Dina, who arranged for the band to tour with KISS -- as ZO2 actually did -- over gefilte fish with KISS guitarist Paul Stanley's grandmother. ("I'm not Jewish, but I'm a good manager, so I go to temple for the connections.") Jay Oakerson is the fictional owner of the factual Brooklyn bar Southpaw, who has a crush on Paulie. ("He's a good lookin' guy, right?" he asks his female bartender. "If you were a dude, would you be into him?") And members of the comedy troupe the Whitest Kids U'Know (who have their own show on IFC) play psychotically cheerful rival band Kidtastic, who come to blows with the Z Brothers at a double-booked birthday party. "In the world of kids' music," Paulie says, defending his turf, "Z Brothers are like Led Zeppelin -- those guys are like REO Speedwagon."

Celebrity guests playing against type or sending up their own reputations are routine for series such as this, and "Z Rock" gives you Blues Traveler John Popper, Skid Row's Sebastian Bach, Joan Rivers (whose face now appears to be carved from wood -- she has the cheekbones of a ventriloquist's dummy) and the ubiquitous Dave Navarro, whose real rock credentials will not keep his tombstone from reading "TV personality." He's quite funny, though.

But most helpful of all are the little kids for whom the Z Brothers perform. They're just there to get crazy, and they do. It's totally rock.



'Z Rock'

Where: IFC

When: 8:30 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17, with an advisory for coarse language)

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