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Could ‘Young Rock’ Be Dwayne Johnson’s ‘Apprentice’?

  • May 06, 2021

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.

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