A punk rock mini-series as raw and powerful as the band that inspired it
There’s no shortage of mainstream media in Sex Pistols debauchery, like the 1986 biopic “Sid and Nancy” and the 2000 documentary “The Filth and the Fury,” but this is the first time the story really feels personal or relatable. By following Jones, one of the less exuberant members of the group, the public has a window on this wild world. Wallace plays him with a sort of tortured boy-next-door vibe, a surprisingly sensitive boy despite his Jim Morrison hairstyle and tendency to wear a lot of leather. He develops a close friendship with Hynde when she teaches him how to be better on the guitar, and Wallace and Chandler have a killer chemistry that’s especially evident when their friendship turns into something more. Chandler in particular is a standout as Hynde, who is one of the anchors around which the chaotic Pistols swirl. There are plenty of opportunities to reduce the women of this story to tropes, and thankfully the show doesn’t. They are each complex and nuanced individuals, just like their male counterparts. Even Spungen has moments of depth, something rarely offered to her in other tales that only show her in her most depraved form.
The series progresses chronologically, for the most part, beginning with the formation of the band and Jones’ introduction to McLaren, Westwood and the rest of the SEX team. SEX was Westwood and McLaren’s punk fetish boutique, offering latex and leather clothing that would give the queen a real heart attack. Westwood would go on to become a world-famous fashion designer, but when she lent her outfits to the Pistols and their groupies in order to show them off, she was just beginning her career. When everyone is just getting started, there’s a whimsical quality to the show, like it’s a coming-of-age story told through the greasy lens of punk rock.
There are times when the horrifying reality of being poor and disenfranchised in 1970s England becomes all too real, reminding audiences that controversial lyrics and provocative outfits mean something. A powerful subplot follows Pauline (Bianca Stephens), a young woman who was raped by one of the staff at a mental institution and then forced to have an abortion. She becomes the inspiration for the Sex Pistols’ song “Bodies,” and her interactions with the various counterculture characters give us great insight into who they really are, while showing the true depths of disenfranchisement in the world. UK. Pauline and Rotten have a kind of beautiful friendship, and the way the two highlight the full spectrum of poverty and abuse by the system is brilliant.
The performances really sell the characters, especially in their more extreme moments. Everyone gives their all, though Boon steals every scene he’s in as the near-savage Johnny Rotten. He is a spark plug, a thunderbolt, a bolt of pure energy sent out to the world to shake it up and tell us all what is what. Although many people only know Rotten from his character and his stage performances, where he is a maniac who spits and fights, the series also shows him with a softer side. He’s angry because he doesn’t care, and it’s that empathy that makes music matter.