Vinyl begins as any Scorsese parody might: our leading man scores some coke, cranes is head back in ecstasy, and teeters on the edge of some unspoken revelation. From there, we get the scenes you would expect after an opening like that. There is a business meeting at an orgy. There is the montage where our heroes explain just what sort of scumbags they are. You’d better believe there is an attractive wife waiting at home who has had enough and is this close to walking away and never coming back. Of course, Mobsters make an appearance. Though the pilot was actually directed by Martin Scorsese, and the showrunner is Terence Winter of Boardwalk Empire and Wolf of Wall Street, Vinyl feels like the paint-by-numbers copy cat work of inferior artists. The series plays the notes we have heard before down to lines like “golden ear, a silver tongue, and a pair of brass balls,” “What do I give a fuck about? Fucking. Fighting. Nothing.” and “Shut your mouth before I break my dick off in your ass.” But this time, those familiar notes fall flat.
When it premiered half a decade ago, Boardwalk Empire felt like it was arriving just past due, a throwback to series that defined the previous decade like The Sopranos and The Shield. Where Boardwalk Empire was fashionably late, Vinyl feels like missed the party entirely.
Bad Men Doing Good Things Distracted by Bad Things
How many television shows do we need that explore the idea that a gifted man can do bad things? We have learned that you can make the best meth in Albuquerque and not really care about your family. We have learned that you can be the most metaphorically gifted ad man in Manhattan and also happen to be a piece of sh-t. We have seen the story of the antihero asshole genius so often that we even have supporting character types we’ve come to expect. Juno Temple plays Vinyl’s answer to Peggy Olson. Olivia Wilde has the unenviable task of taking on the nagging wife role that has already been thanklessly portrayed by January Jones and Anna Gunn. In the pilot, Wilde’s Devon Finestra dresses down her husband Richie (Bobby Cannavale), because, of course, she’s fed up with the drinking and the drugs. She gestures to a bottle of Crown Royal and says, “Our life isn’t enough for you. This is what you need.” You can feel the ghosts of Carmela Soprano, Betty Draper, Skyler White, and Margaret Thompson in every single word and sigh.
Vinyl feels like what a computer might spit out if you shoved the last twenty years of television through a Silicon Valley algorithm. It’s a fine re-mix of everything that’s been done before without much of the heart that made those shows hits. Oddly, there is a strange synergy between the plot of Vinyl and the making of Vinyl. Cannavale plays a man at the end of an era. His company, American Century Records, is stuck on a sound that is going extinct. They have to change their ways or fade away. While Richie slowly comes to terms with idea that punk or hip-hop or pop are going to provide the new sound that ushers his company into the future, HBO seems hell bent on producing the same things we’ve seen before, only worse.
Rock ‘n Roll Forrest Gump
What makes this show inferior to early entrants into the prestige anti-hero lane is that it lacks specifics. When you watched The Sopranos, you felt like you were sitting in front of the butcher shop in a velour jumpsuit. Halt and Catch Fire put you in the garage building the motherboard. You don’t buy Vinyl’s relationship to reality for one minute. The plotting feels like it was dreamt up to please a group of suburban dads who came out of their man caves to argue about which music moments had to be included. “We have to have a scene with Robert Plant,” you can imagine a guy in a faded Zeppelin t-shirt arguing. “What about the early days of punk rock?” a balding dude in tight jeans would add. “You have to understand that hip-hop was just coming into its own at that time as well,” another dad might inform us. We even get flashback to the era when blues was still giving birth to rock and roll, just in case a rock historian happens to be watching. Episode two doubles down on the 70s bingo card with a subplot involving a screen test for Andy Warhol. The target audience is clearly anyone who still has a Rolling Stone subscription out of a sense of obligation. The rest of the audience is likely left scratching their head asking why exactly they should give a sh-t.
This attempt to check every box in 1970s music history is ultimately a noble failure. In following Richie’s rock and roll everyman we don’t feel rooted in any particular vision of Manhattan or point of view on the 70s. It is a wonderland of bare breasts and rails of cocaine as far as the eye can see. It is a land where The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin will dominate the charts for eternity and Katy Perry and Kanye West will never exist. Vinyl is set in the New York City of the Baby Boomer imagination.
There are good things about Vinyl; it would be difficult to assemble a team like this and come up completely empty-handed. Cannavale always brings raw power to the screen. You can’t do much better than Scorsese when you’re looking for a pilot director. The production design is flawless, down to the thread on the couch cushions. There are even glimmers of novel plotting in storylines like Juno Temple’s ambitious assistant discovering punk rock and Ato Essandoh as a fallen bluesman trying to protect the next generation of Black musicians from vultures in suits. Despite all of that, a pile of fine components don’t necessarily make for a good show.
When Richie tells us at the beginning of the series in the obligatory retrospective voiceover, “Remember this, you jealous prick, I earned my right to be hated,” you might just speak back to the television and say “First you have to show me something worth remembering.” Ideally, a show should feel relevant. But failing that, viewers can settle for interesting. No matter how much cocaine is snorted off of bare breasts, if you show us the same thing over and over again, eventually it stops being interesting.