Five episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
There’s a degree of déjà vu going into Vinyl, HBO’s latest crack at grown-up entertainment, this time focused on the drugged-up, hazy age of the early-’70s record industry in New York City. The network, not one to sit idly by and lazily jump on a trend bandwagon, has a pantheon of such forward-thinking, original programming that something like Vinyl feels solely disappointing upon first blush for the simple fact that – unlike its trendsetting, far-out characters – it’s somewhat content to be mainstream.
Vinyl has its roots in the classic anti-hero television serial, middle-finger opening monologue and all, but for once such an ode to a story full of “lost brain cells, self-aggrandizement, and maybe a little bullshit,” as Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) himself puts it, feels appropriately crude, thanks to the grungy 70’s backdrop. It’s a show that has enough verve to flash-cut from a line of cocaine to powdered sugar atop a toddler’s stack of pancakes, and its maturity feels eager to satiate the network’s audience in the early hours of the season.
It’s just that initially, the show’s yearning to be liked feels largely incongruous with Vinyl‘s devil-may-care, callous era. Its over-stuffed but deftly directed (by Martin Scorsese) two-hour pilot is a monster; we meet Richie, founder and president of his own label, American Century Records, or as a few of his former clients dub it, “American Cemetery, where artists go to die.” Improper business dealings in the past, coupled with Richie’s own addiction issues, have led him and a few of his right hand men to sell the company to a Germany-based conglomerate, called Polygram. As is the fashion in shows like this, essentially nothing goes to plan.
Full of bizarrely fun musical interludes, unspecified time jumps, and more name-dropping of era-relevant musical artists than you can shake a Donny Osmond record at, the pilot is also a bit of an improper representation of what the show eventually amounts to. Directed by Scorsese, it’s easy to see the full-length feature film in the kernel of Vinyl‘s dramatic DNA, which was co-created by Scorsese, Mick Jagger, Rich Cohen, and Terence Winter. The pilot is a character piece, introducing us to Richie in a flash-forward as a bottom-scrubbing guy out to score a bump of cocaine, showing us the idyllic life he led just a few days earlier for the subsequent two hours, and then tearing it all down around him (literally, in a worth-every-minute final shot).
It’d probably have made an okay TV movie. Thankfully, in the following hours the creative minds behind the show expound on Richie’s TV-predictable spiral in ways that are far more economically delivered than in the first two episodes, and subsequently far easier to be lost in. After the pilot’s big turn, Richie is left picking up the pieces with his bohemian wife Devon (Olivia Wilde), disgruntled partner Zak (Ray Romano), and everyone else who saw the deal with Polygram as an easy million dollar cash-out. Richie is reformed, though, envisioning an era of pure sound and innovation in American Century’s future, ready to turn the ship around with the help of headstrong up-and-coming sandwich-fetcher/secretary Jamie (Juno Temple, maybe the best argument for Vinyl‘s existence).
When Richie sends out his A&R underlings to find a new band for the company in under two weeks, Jamie wrangles in the very British, very messy quartet known as “The Nasty Bits.” She sees through their grimy outlying problems to the pure sound underneath, and her willingness to step on the throats of her co-workers to make it to the top should inspire frightful regret in anyone who dare compare her to that other secretary from that other time-capsule, Manhattan-set, industry-focused office drama. Vinyl crackles when it’s in the muck of the office politics of its dysfunctional cast – like any job-focused story, seeing someone really good at their job is strangely addictive – but any time Temple shows up, she’s like kerosene to a campfire.
As the nexus of the show, Cannavale walks the high-wire act of beloved husband and gutter-living addict with unkempt, barely-caged energy. His pilot personality is largely one of a sober, well-adjusted man whose most interesting quirk lies in a minute-long glimpse into his boozy impairment. In intercut flashbacks, Richie founds American Century and recruits little-known black singer Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh), bickers with the company’s sleazy head of sales Scott (P.J. Byrne), and largely feels like the antithesis of every dark hero saga put to TV since HBO’s own The Sopranos. In a show oozing with style, those discombobulating flashbacks are entirely anchored by the best special effect on the show: Cannavale’s slicked-back 60’s comb-over and its place alongside the feathery 70’s explosion of curls.
While initially intriguing (Will he even cheat on his wife?! I wondered aloud to myself at one point), the premiere is too sluggish to back up its more disruptive notions. But not to worry – Richie slumps down into anti-hero territory soon enough. Should I celebrate that? Is it okay to embrace a cliché that’s felt increasingly tired the further we get away from leaving Heisenberg behind on that dirty factory floor? After recuperating from the downright electric fifth hour of the show, in which Richie navigates the in-the-weeds industry mess of The Nasty Bits’ anarchic behavior, set amidst the destruction of his crumbling marriage which implodes on a dinner date with funk superstar Hannibal (Daniel J. Watts), I’m gonna go ahead and say yes.
It’s all pure formula, down to the spiralling hero, glitzy job, Big Secret central plot device, and angry spouse, but it’s a formula that feels finer tuned than most. Really, Vinyl is like a New Age cover band set to perform all of the hits of your favorite artist from decades ago: you’ve seen and heard all of this before, but it’s revisited with such enthusiasm, energy, and masterful direction that the more you listen and lose yourself in the sound, the easier it is to forget you’re actually watching the imitator.
Make it past the sluggish pilot and Vinyl explodes into a kaleidoscopic series with enough addictive drama, believably broken characters, and general funk that it becomes very easy to forget how un-fresh it all is.