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FXs Pistol Is a Striking, Occasionally Abrasive Look at the Sex Pistols: TV Review

Some of the most exciting filmmaking in “Pistol,” FX’s new Danny Boyle-directed limited series, happens onstage. In concert scenes featuring the Sex Pistols — the real-life punk pathbreakers at the center of this story — the camera toggles between performer and spectator, moving so rapidly that it seems to eliminate the distance between the two. Director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle captures both staging in the foreground and expressive moshing in the background. The writhing performance seems less to spark violence in the audience than to run parallel to it, another expression of the free-floating anger in the air.

It’s a canny way of depicting the Pistols’ appeal: The show argues that the band had an intuitive ability to tap into the rage of youth culture in pre-Thatcherite England. It makes that argument eloquently by showing the group converting even small audiences, early on, into wild and emotional demonstrations. As the series wears on, however, “Pistol” begins to flag, losing both energy and an eye on what it’s trying to say.

Part of that may be a matter of perspective. “Pistol” is based on guitarist Steve Jones’ memoir “Lonely Boy: Tales From a Sex Pistol,” and it’s through his character, played by Toby Wallace, that we experience the band’s rise and brief time in the spotlight. (Their one studio album, the iconic “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols,” was released in 1977.)

This makes “Pistol” the second show of the season, after Paramount+’s “The Offer” — based on the recollections of a producer of “The Godfather” — to recount a story from pop-culture history from the point of view of one of its less electric participants. And it means that we see figures like singer Johnny Rotten (Anson Boon) and bassist Sid Vicious (Louis Partridge) at an arm’s-length remove, witnessing their oddities and appetites without cracking why they want what they want.

It’s an interesting choice to frame Steve as the straight man — perhaps an inevitable one, given the outsize place that his bandmates occupy in the public imagination. (Other members are played by Jacob Slater as Paul Cook and, for a time, Christian Lees as Glen Matlock — eventually replaced on bass by Partridge’s Sid in order to present a more authentically rebellious image.) And Wallace does sweetly soulful work, giving just the right amount of weight to notes of trauma in his character’s backstory. Indeed, Steve has been left with a clammed-up quality, so much so that manager Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) insists he doesn’t have the stuff to sing lead.

Unfortunately, this means that Steve slips out of his own story, with Johnny and then Sid presenting raucous sideshows at the center of the frame. Both strike the viewer as ideal supporting characters who’ve been given a shade too much of the limelight. Sid, especially, is accompanied by doomed love interest Nancy Spungen, played by Emma Appleton in a performance that is bravely, even rigorously, willing to be annoying. (In one scene, the addled Nancy treats viewers to the sounds of her intestinal distress at some length.) This story has been done on film before, in the Gary Oldman-Chloe Webb drama “Sid and Nancy,” and it’s not consistently clear what this retelling of the tale of the two young lovers and their sad fates adds, beyond their readiness to go to extremes.

That’s a quality existing throughout “Pistol,” which struggles so mightily to settle down but often leaves key characters with little to do when the music stops. Boon’s Johnny Rotten is a frantic-in-the-best-way turn, glowing with contempt for his audience and for music itself. He lends a crystalline sense of how this band tapped into something real in Britain’s youth culture. But “Pistol” doesn’t give him the kind of moments that, say, Sebastian Stan got in this year’s “Pam & Tommy,” in which the persona is allowed to falter.

Brodie-Sangster’s music impresario — constantly scheming to advance his and his act’s interests — is the character most attuned with what “Pistol” is trying to do, and excels; the show less consistently has time or room for female characters, with punk pioneers like rocker Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler), designer Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley) and the mononymous muse Jordan (Maisie Williams) stuck on the story’s margins. A scene in which Westwood laboriously describes how her fashions “turn the male gaze back on itself” feels like “Pistol” attempting to hastily explain her impact before skittering on.

The lack of integration of such characters into the main story indicates just how ramshackle that story is. “Pistol” often feels episodic in the worst way, jumping from incident to incident with little connective tissue. And the sense of disaffection among Sex Pistols fans can feel theoretical at times, as when it’s evoked through shots of the royal family underscored by ironic music. Viewers will yearn for the ballast of clearer insights about the era. But “Pistol” gets the viscera right. That’s why the concert scenes come as such a balm: They are the moments when the milieu our characters inhabit feels most plainly drawn. Amid the chaos of the dance floor, the Sex Pistols yearn to obliterate themselves, each other and their listeners. Even if what’s around these moments doesn’t consistently work, “Pistol” nails the thrill of learning to disappear into sound.

All episodes of FX’s “Pistol” are available to stream on Hulu May 31.

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