‘Young Rock’: TV Show or Campaign Ad?

The Rock runs for President in a sitcom, or maybe he’s just getting us used to the idea of President Dwayne Johnson

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is not a presidential candidate (at least, not yet). But he does play one on TV.

In NBC’s “Young Rock,” the WWE champion and Fast & Furious star plays a fictionalized version of himself as a presidential candidate in 2032. In the framing device for the show, a fictionalized version of Randall Park, who is now a journalist after moving on from his acting career, is interviewing Johnson in a series of campaign trail interviews. Johnson is trying to show the American people that his larger-than-life upbringing isn’t all that different from everyday Americans.

The result is a fun, if slightly too calculated, network sitcom that never takes itself too seriously that also seems like a dry run for any future campaigns the real Dwayne Johnson might run. The first episode, “Working the Gimmick,” a nod to his family’s wrestling roots, tips its hand as to what type of show we’re watching.

“The truth is, I never stopped working the gimmick,” 2032 Johnson says. “I’ve just learned to make the gimmick work for me. I started figuring it out when I got to the University of Miami…Be me, but with the dial turned up to 11.”

Johnson—the real one—has evolved from a WWE persona to an actor to a capital B, four-quadrant Brand. At this point, everyone’s smelled what The Rock has cookin’. As of 2019, his films have made more than $10.5 billion worldwide. He co-owns the XFL. He has his own tequila brand, his own film production company and his own line of Under Armour apparel. His Disney movies are hits with parents and kids alike. Earlier this year, he announced his own energy drink line.

His Instagram feed is full of workout routines and positive messaging. He sticks up for small businesses. He has citizenship in North America and Canada and has had honorary titles bestowed upon him in his ancestral home of Sāmoa. As of 2019, he owns property in Los Angeles, Virginia and Florida. Young Rock paints a portrait of Johnson growing up first in Hawai’i, then Pennsylvania and then in Florida for college.

Speaking of his world roots, Young Rock wants you to know Candidate Johnson is just a part of “One Family Called America,” which doubles as his campaign slogan.

“My dad knew his business was changing, and he was afraid of getting left behind,” 2032 Johnson says at the end of episode three of Young Rock, the show’s most business-centric so far. “And that’s a fear I know many Americans struggle with today. That’s why, as your President, I will make sure none of us get left behind, and that change benefits all, not just some. Because when I see you, I see my grandmother, I see my mother and father. I see that we’re all a part of one family called America. I’m Dwayne Johnson, and I approve this message.”

Young Rock
Dwayne Johnson (Uli Latukefu), goes to college in ‘Young Rock’.

That quote comes from the fictionalized Dwayne Johnson, but it’s not hard to picture him saying it in real life. He takes great pains to paint himself as an everyman, despite his mega-celebrity status.

He’s painted his childhood growing up with his dad Rocky Johnson, his football career at University of Miami and his wrestling career in the WWE as a series of found families, a theme he’s included time and time again in his films. He’s even played a heightened version of himself in film before, in the charming, if predictable, Fighting with My Family.

The concept of mana—spirit, power—also plays into his film output and his business ethos. He’s always been open about his family life, but never exceedingly so; he’s always amiable to talk about his life and his struggles growing up, but always with a positive spin. A running gag on Young Rock is that Johnson’s family was so poor growing up he started shoplifting clothes to wear to school so other kids wouldn’t make fun of him. The 2032 Johnson mentions these anecdotes as a way to preempt any bad press about himself. He says he knows those petty crimes were mistakes of which he’s not proud, and then he spins them into opportunities to talk about how he knows what it’s like to go without, making himself more relatable to everyday people.

He relates other funny and entertaining anecdotes in the show but also curates and sitcom-packages them with Life Lessons at the end. He takes a first date to a wrestling match at a swap meet. He buys his first car from a bum who gives him sage advice. He watches his dad cope with becoming irrelevant in the ring. 

The Rock tells these stories in such a way that always turns out to be great for Candidate Johnson in the end. They make for great comedic relief, but it feels as if the audience will never know the real Dwayne, or the true The Rock.

Johnson is hard to pin down politically, too. He voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, abstained from voting in 2016 and now identifies as an independent voter. He endorsed Joe Biden for president in 2020. The central thesis of Young Rock isn’t hard to imagine. Ronald Reagan was an actor before becoming a politician, and later, the President. Wrestler Jesse Ventura was in the WWF and pursued an acting career before becoming the governor of Minnesota. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose career Johnson’s most closely emulates, was a bodybuilder and action film star before becoming governor of California.

But Johnson makes it a point to not talk too much about politics. He’s a consummate professional, whether he’s in a ring or in front of a camera. The brilliant masterstroke of Young Rock is the real Dwayne Johnson making us aware that he’s selling us a specific persona. We’re in on the joke, but it doesn’t feel malicious because he’s just so damn likeable in the role. Young Rock truly is a fun, likeable show that has a lot of great performances, especially Adrian Groulx, Bradley Constant and Uli Latukefu, the three actors who play Johnson at different stages in his life.

Maybe the real Johnson is that sunny and positive all the time, but the real and fake versions of Johnson want you to think he is. It’s clear Young Rock is teeing up a persona that could work as a real-life presidential candidate. The People’s Champion has said before he would only make a bid for president “if that’s what the people wanted.” 

It’s not out of the question. And, if Young Rock is any indication, whatever presidential bid the real Dwayne Johnson launches won’t be some lark. It will be incredibly calculated–and incredibly likable.

 

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Jake Harris

Jake Harris is a Texas-based journalist whose writing about pop culture and entertainment has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Nashville Scene and more. You can find more of his writings at jakeharrisbog.com or through his pop culture newsletter, Jacob's Letter.

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