Is there a more disproportionate myth-to-music ratio? The Sex Pistols squeezed all of their mess into one tight album, 1977’s “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols,” then disbanded in 1978, leaving a blast radius now known as punk rock. Their antagonistic petulance was innate, but it was the quartet’s impresario-manager Malcolm McLaren who helped sculpt it into something resembling an ideology. In his 1992 book “England’s Dreaming,” rock journalist Jon Savage explained that “England is a highly static society, with a strongly defined ruling class and a narrow definition of the acceptable,” which allowed punk to become “a place where many of [the marginalized] meet, dreamers and misfits from all classes, to transform, if not the world, then their world.”
Once McLaren heard all of those possibilities in Johnny Rotten’s sneer, he helped amplify them into something too chaotic to be contained, forcing the Sex Pistols story to spill out into armfuls of books; a posthumous 1980 mockumentary, “The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle”; a 1986 Hollywood drama, “Sid and Nancy”; and a setting-the-record-straight documentary from 2000, “The Filth and the Fury,” in which Rotten — now John Lydon — describes his band as a social inevitability: “The Sex Pistols should have happened, and did.”
Director Danny Boyle’s “Pistol,” a new six-episode drama series now streaming on FX on Hulu, shouldn’t be happening, but is. Sentimental and Wikipedia-like, it depicts scary visionaries as mildly idiosyncratic golden retrievers, perhaps to help Walmart shoppers feel more comfortable with their impulse purchases. In the spirit of the show’s banality, Boyle issued a publicity statement framing “Pistol” as a sort of rebuke to competing prestige television dramas: “Imagine breaking into the world of ‘The Crown’ and ‘Downton Abbey’ with your mates and screaming your songs and your fury at all they represent.”
What did we expect, though? It makes perfect sense that “Pistol” was designed more for bored “Downton Abbey” watchers than for skeptics whose entire lives were shaped by punk, especially considering that nearly all rock-and-roll biopic projects are doomed propositions from the start. I used to think I knew why: Even the coolest, hottest actors alive will never be as cool-hot as the heroes they’ve been tasked with portraying, artists whose physical gestures are so deeply imprinted on our brain tissue that we know their dance moves better than our own. When you love the music, the disbelief can’t be suspended.
The cast of “Pistol” gets closer than most. The entire show is based on guitarist Steve Jones’s 2016 memoir “Lonely Boy,” and the plot wisely revolves around his background hustle, allowing actor Toby Wallace just enough space to be a charming protagonist. Anson Boon has an infinitely harder assignment playing Johnny Rotten, but he nails at least half of his subject’s zigzag stage postures, which instantly makes him 10 times more respectable than Rami Malek doing that unbearable (nevertheless Oscar-winning) Freddie Mercury impression a few years back. Still, there was a signature twinkle in Lydon’s eye during the Sex Pistols days, a glint of spiteful mischief so magnetic and unknowable, punk as we understand it might not have happened without it. For all of Boon’s fastidious attention to detail, he doesn’t have the glint, and so a vague lack of the proper orbital musculature blasts an entire television series down the flushhole.
And regardless of how close the cast comes to collapsing this uncanny valley, “Pistol” surfaces the deadliest rock biopic sin: Making every band the same. Turns out that even the Sex Pistols, in all their nihilistic volatility, were just a few hardscrabble kids with big dreams, big hearts and an uncanny knack for overcoming their differences by routinely delivering eloquent motivational speeches that actual 21-year-olds predisposed to expressing their confusion through noise are simply not capable of. When the band hits the road, it’s a rowdy montage sequence. When it’s time to write a song, the music materializes out of zippy repartee. Why make this band, who didn’t talk or sound like anyone else, sound and talk like everyone else? Deep in the story, when Sex Pistols replacement bassist and punk depravity mascot Sid Vicious — sweetly played by Louis Partridge — mumbles something prophetic about dying at 21, Rotten, as if reading the viewer’s mind, snaps: “Don’t say stupid cliches like that!”
The show’s most egregious scene unfolds roughly halfway through the series with the band barging through “Pretty Vacant” at London’s 100 Club on Oct. 8, 1976, when, slowly, the song begins to fade out. The crowd is still slamming around, but now everything’s in slow-motion, which makes the room feel more playful and less dangerous. Assorted fluids — bodily and beverage — trace neat arcs through the air, like debris floating in the zero-gravity chill of space. Eventually, the diagetic noise coming from the stage gets swapped out for soundtracky filler — a shimmering, rocklike ambiance that glows with an aura of profundity. We’re meant to feel that this is the Sex Pistols at their peak, and to signal the importance of this sacred moment, the music that this entire series is based on must be replaced with something that sounds like Coldplay.
Yet, as I sit here and type out how much I dislike the big, dumb Sex Pistols television show, a voice from another corner of my brain shouts at me: “Don’t write stupid cliches like that!” The curse of the Sex Pistols is that they helped turn skepticism itself into a cliche — or even worse, into a reflex, which is currently turning this whole world into an increasingly meaningless place. Now we all live in a digital inversion of punk where contrarian trolling frequently poses as righteous defiance. Being annoyed by a cuddly, fictionalized Sex Pistols feels more pointless than it should.
Pistol (six episodes) is now streaming on FX on Hulu.