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‘Young Rock’: Clever sitcom flashes back to Dwayne Johnson’s adventures as a kid and a teen

Meanwhile, Kenan Thompson gets a prime-time showcase on a likable NBC comedy of his own.

Dwayne Johnson at age 10 (Adrian Groulx) clowns with Andre the Giant (Matthew Willig) on “Young Rock.”
NBC

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has been one of the biggest movie stars in the world for the last two decades even though most of his films are forgettable nonsense and NONE of them is as compelling and rich in material as Johnson’s own life story, from his nomadic childhood as the son of a former pro wrestler to a college football career to his legendary run as one of the most popular grapplers ever to his global box-office triumphs to becoming a one-man conglomerate adored by … well, who DOESN’T love the big guy?

In fact, The Rock’s life would make for quite a dramatization, don’t you think? Hmmmmmmmm ….

In “Young Rock,” premiering Tuesday on NBC, Johnson has the perfect vehicle to showcase his self-effacing, enormously likable persona while telling a fictionalized version of his amazing life story. Thanks to Johnson’s typically screen-filling, infectious and winning performance, the terrific supporting cast and some clever and original storytelling by showrunners Nahnatchka Khan and Jeff Chiang, “Young Rock” packs a formidable one-two comedic/dramatic punch in each of the three episodes I screened. Of course, this is a heightened-reality version of the adventures of The Rock at age 10 (Adrian Groulx), The Rock at 15 (Bradley Constant), The Rock at 18 (Uli Latukefu) and The Rock of the future (played by The Rock!), but it feels essentially true and it’s the life we imagine Johnson has had — and will have.

Dwayne Johnson (from left) plays himself in 2032, reminiscing about being 10 (Adrian Groulx), 15 (Bradley Constant) and 18 (Uli Latukefu) on “Young Rock.”
NBC

The framing device for “Young Rock” has Johnson running for president in 2032, with Gen. Monica Jackson (Rosario Dawson) as his running mate, even though they have polar-opposite political opinions and Gen. Jackson was critical of The Rock’s remake of “Matilda” for not being violent enough. As The Rock gives an extensive interview to Randall Park (played by Randall Park!), who has made the transition from acting to broadcast journalism, he reminisces about his past — and that’s the cue for storylines involving the Young Rock at various ages, with Stacey Leilua as Dwayne’s mom Ata and Joseph Lee Anderson as dad Rocky stepping into the spotlight and infusing the stories with warmth and humor and humanity.

The fashion and hairstyles are spot-on in an episode in which the teenage Rock starts getting into trouble even as the kids AND the administrators at his new school think he’s a narc because he looks to be about 25. And there’s a wonderful moment in the life of 10-year-old Dwayne when Andre the Giant (Matthew Willig) takes him to see “E.T.,” because who better to relate to being the ultimate misunderstood misfit than a real-life giant on Earth?

Whether that really happened or not, it SHOULD have happened. It’s the stuff of the legend of Young Rock.

‘KENAN’: Considering Kenan Thompson has the longest all-time tenure as a “Saturday Night Live” cast member, having joined the likes of Darrell Hammond, Seth Meyers, Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey and Fred Armisen in 2003 and continuing through the current season, it’s a wonder it took NBC this long to hand Thompson the keys to his own prime-time vehicle, a single-camera comedy titled simply “Kenan.”

Better pretty great than never.

I’ve seen the pilot for “Kenan,” which also premieres Tuesday on NBC, and while it’s hardly groundbreaking, Must-See TV, it’s a warm and funny slice of comfort viewing featuring a winning performance by Thompson, strong work from the supporting cast and some admirably though-provoking, issues-based situations baked into the comedy. Thompson maintains his sunny but occasionally edgy persona as he slips comfortably into the role of a recently widowed father struggling to balance fatherhood and his job as the host of an upbeat, Atlanta-based, local morning TV show called “Wake Up With Kenan!”

And oh BTW, Don Johnson plays his meddling, live-in father-in-law, and if that sounds like stunt casting of course it is, but Johnson proves to be adept at the rhythms of dialogue-driven, punchline-oriented comedic timing. I’m not saying he’ll make you forget Jerry Stiller, but there’s something kind of wacky and wonderful about seeing Thompson, fellow “SNL” player Chris Redd as Kenan’s brother Gary and the slickster crime-stopper from “Miami Vice” and “Nash Bridges” exchanging banter around the kitchen table.

Kenan Thompson (center) stars on “Kenan” with Chris Redd (left) and Don Johnson.
NBC

The pilot toggles back and forth between scenes of Kenan at home with his two adorable, whip-smart daughters Aubrey and Birdie (real-life sisters and YouTube stars Dani and Dannah Lane, respectively), his party-bachelor brother/manager and his wisecracking father-in-law, and workplace hijinks on the set of “Wake Up With Kenan!,” with Kimrie Lewis as Kenan’s high-strung but loyal executive producer Mika. One subplot involves Kenan digging himself deeper and deeper into politically incorrect territory with an ad-libbed monologue; another has Kenan struggling to talk about his wife on his show or at home. We also learn Kenan was formerly an actor and starred in a sitcom in which his future wife, Corri (Niccole Thurman), played his mother, wait what? Kenan pops in an old VHS of outtakes from the show, and the kids groan at the obvious sexual undercurrent when “mom” tucks him into bed. “I’m amazed they kept us as long as they did,” says Kenan.

Here’s hoping “Kenan” has a longer run.