Pistol: Season 1 Review – IGN

Pistol premieres Tuesday, May 31, 2022, with a full season drop on Hulu.

Ask anyone to pick a band that best exemplifies the punk era and most will say Sex Pistols, even if they’ve never actually listened to them. They formed in 1975 and only lasted two and half years before they flamed out in the wake of the heroin overdose of their bassist, Sid Vicious, and bad blood amongst the remaining members. In the years since, the legend of the toxic romance between Sid and Nancy Spungen has somewhat overtaken the output of the band itself. The new FX series, Pistol, is an origin story approach to telling their story, mostly from the perspective of guitarist Steve Jones (Toby Wallace), from the band’s initial days through to their 2002 reunion performance. The six-episode series certainly contextualizes the punk scene, and Sex Pistols’ place within that era, but it lacks depth when it comes to making any of the players resonate as real people. Aside from Jones’ backstory, no one else in the band gets much of a history and as such, the episodes play out more like a scripted docuseries that lovingly recreates their big milestones but feels undercooked in giving us insight into who they really were as actual people.

All six episodes of Pistol are written by Craig Pearce (Moulin Rouge, Elvis) and directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting), based on Jones’ autobiography, Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol. The limited series retains Jones as its central character, with the first episode, “Track 1: The Cloak of Invisibility,” diving into his late teen miscreant years, where he stole David Bowie’s lipstick-stained mic, and the gear of other major acts of the day, when he crept into the empty London’s Hammerstein Odeon in the wee morning hours. Steve is the product of a terrible family situation, sexually abused and browbeat by his step-father; essentially, he’s the quintessential angry young man who steals, does drugs, and dreams of making it big with his band The Strand, which he then lamentably renamed ​​The Swankers.

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It wasn’t until he tried to shoplift clothes for the band from Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Vivienne Westwood’s (Talulah Riley) avant garde clothing store, Sex, that Jones’ life really changed. Impressed with his brash counterculture ideals and ambition for his band, the pair take Jones under their wing, seeing him as a potential agent of chaos Malcolm especially wants to thrust onto stuffy, conformist English society via angry music. Through them, Steve meets store clerks Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler), who wants to start her own band, and Pamela Rooke, aka Jordan (Maisie Williams), a style icon of the punk era. And then Malcolm saves Steve from going to prison for theft, and in return he becomes Steve’s band manager. And much like today’s boy band impressarios, he reinvents every aspect of their lineup and image into what will become the Sex Pistols.

Initially, the series has a good energy to it, shot to look like it’s all been captured on film with excellent period production details, from the Sex store to the makeup and costumes that are spot on for the times. Boyle even cuts in plenty of period stock footage so you get the aesthetics and historical context of the time, from how the Queen looks to The Beatles and even just the faces from London streets. It’s effectively immersive and fleshes out the restrictive socioeconomic issues that fomented the anger of the youth. Dubbed the forgotten generation, the punks were looking to push back against all norms and Malcolm’s vision was for the Sex Pistols to “f— the world” with their noise music and angry egos shoved together like kindling inside the band.

At one point, Westwood calls out all of the men in the band, but especially McLaren and Jones, as “lost little boys” who used it as an outlet to flail against those who belittle them or made them feel less than. And while that may be very true, Pistol falters in trying to get that psychology across with any subtlety or depth. For one, the dialogue is often very ham handed, along with the ways in which past traumas are presented. In the first two episodes, Jones’ anger about his low self-esteem, lack of focus, and issues with his step-father are framed mostly as gauzy, drug-induced memories that plague him while partying or trying to perform with the band. It’s like pop psychology distilled into visuals that really don’t feel organic to the time, or to how any of the men would actually be processing their lives without the benefit of therapy or the modern day understanding of trauma manifests. There’s an anachronistic vibe that permeates everything that doesn’t sit well because it plays like faux introspection. And that shows itself again jarringly in “Track 3: Bodies,” which tries to backwards engineer the Johnny Lydon-penned song about a real woman he once met into a character that is literally woven into the fabric of the band across this episode.

On the other hand, the attempt at understanding what makes Jones tick doesn’t carry through consistently with the rest of the band. Lydon (Anson Boon) is basically plucked off the street, as is, and presented as such for the rest of the series. And then John Ritchie (Louis Partridge) is introduced as literally “the other John” who gets renamed as Sid Vicious and then succumbs to the pitfalls of fame with drugs, alcohol, and his passionate yet toxic affair with Nancy (Emma Appleton). It’s all very surface-level, with yelling at one another or whining about one another becoming the abiding modulation. It works if you just love to watch band squabbling, insults being bandied about, or simply observing their ascribed personalities acting out on stage. Outside of that, all of it gets tedious by the fourth episode as the story devolves more into the players just acting out their seminal performances, while sniping at one another behind the scenes.

Strangely, the finale episode is lacking in any earned emotions.

No one is very admirable, except for some support characters like McLaren, Hynde, and Westwood. Actress Sydney Chandler brings a lot of wit and determination to her characterization of Hynde. She’s got a burning purpose, even when the stakes are against her, and a warmth towards Steve and their shared passions that in turn makes him a little more likable. Riley’s Westwood is the parent in the room, a firebrand when it comes to self expression but very much backed by a fierce intellect. And Thomas Brodie-Sangster is a whirlwind of pretension and obnoxiousness, which is what makes Malcolm so fun to watch every time he’s on screen. In real life, you’d want to kill him, but in the series his position as the specter behind the punk puppets pulling all the strings is fascinating. He and Brodie-Sangster’s performance of him is one the most insightful takeaways in regards to the true history of the band.

Strangely, the finale episode is also lacking in any earned emotions. Maybe watching man-boys self-destruct for six hours without taking any joy in the music they’re making, and definitely not in one another, is the only outcome you can expect. But it makes the dissolving of the band and even their reunion come across as rather perfunctory. There’s no roundup of where they went next, or the successes they had apart and then eventually together again with infrequent Sex Pistols reunions. Pistol just captures a moment in time when the band blared in excess to the disgusted and delighted ears around them, which is interesting to observe, but as a series makes for an unemotional watch.

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