Martin Scorsese knows 1970’s New York; Mick Jagger knows rock and roll; Terence Winter knows drama. So expectations were high when these three guys came together to produce Vinyl, HBO’s new show about a struggling New York City record company in 1973. Season one is officially in the books, so we can finally go back, look at it as a whole (which is usually necessary with these premium cable dramas), and ask, “was it worth watching?”
First things first, this soundtrack is amazing; whoever put it together deserves an award. It’s hands down the best part of the entire show (much like music was the best part of the 70’s), and it enhances the viewing experience as a whole. The tracks blend seamlessly into the story, and are the perfect mix of rock, funk, pop, and everything else that the decade had to offer. And if you’re thinking, “there’s no way the soundtrack can be that good,” go listen to the official Vinyl playlist on Spotify and prepare to eat crow.
In that same vein, the plot itself is best when it focuses on the music element. Bobby Cannavale plays Richie Finestra, head of the struggling American Century Records. At the start of the season, American Century is about to be bought out by a German conglomerate, much to the pleasure of Richie’s partner played by Ray Romano, J. C. MacKenzie, and P. J. Byrne. But Richie backs out at the last minute, having had a drug fueled epiphany and believing that he can save the company by refocusing on music that makes people feel alive. The rest of the season focuses mainly on this endeavor, and the roller coaster ride that it is for everyone involved.
The story of Richie and American Century rocks (…get it?). It’s a backstage tour of the music industry during its craziest and most interesting era, featuring portrayals of icons like Alice Cooper and David Bowie, as well as fictional bands like The Nasty Bits (whose frontman is played by Mick Jagger’s son James). It’s captivating storytelling bolstered by outstanding music. Simply put, Vinyl is at its best when focusing on Richie and what he does to bring his company back from the brink.
Unfortunately, the show strays into various subplots that just don’t resonate as strongly, and that brings the whole show down. These side stories definitely serve a purpose: they’re there to flesh out the supporting characters like Richie’s wife Devon, an ex-Warhol girl who’s dreadfully unfulfilled by her new life as a suburban housewife. There’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to build upon auxiliary characters; in fact it’s encouraged. But these stories ultimately go nowhere and leave the viewer feeling as unfulfilled as Mrs. Finestra.
Maybe these plotlines will be expanded upon next season, but no one would complain if they were abandoned completely. It actually felt like the writers recognized the flaws themselves, because some of these subplots were resolved very abruptly. For instance, one character is revealed to be fudging numbers to skim money for himself, and it looked like it was going to be a major issue within the overall story. But it’s barely mentioned again before being wrapped up in an extremely brief conversation between this character and Richie. In fact, all of the side stories except for one seem to fade away by the season finale and all that’s left is the music. It’s as if the production team recognized their mistakes and realigned their vision halfway through the season.
Yet, with all of the problems that the story has, the actors do their best to make up for it. Olivia Wilde is wonderfully heartbreaking as Devon, which is probably why it’s so disappointing that her story fizzles out the way it does. That pretty much applies to all of the supporting characters; regardless of how poorly their individual story is being told, no actor phones in their performance. And if Richie is the most interesting part of the show, it’s only because Bobby Cannavale plays him that way. Cannavale is great in this role the same way that James Gandolfini was as Tony Soprano and Bryan Cranston was as Walter White. He takes a terribly flawed character, one that you should really hate for the terrible choices that they make, and makes you both love and hate him. You don’t need to root for him to succeed, but you’re interested enough to see how his story unfolds.
The show’s production design also bears mentioning as it goes a long way to provide authenticity. It really does transport the viewer to 1973, and it oozes with the grit and grime of the city at that time. Even the cinematography adds to that feeling; the footage looks like it was shot on old film instead of digital. The overall design is simply another factor that would’ve led to the program’s success had the story not run astray (and it would have been a much bigger success).
Vinyl had a lot of potential going into this first season, and it still has plenty of potential moving forward. There truly is a great show in there somewhere just waiting to burst out, and it will be interesting to see where the story goes in light of Terence Winter’s departure as showrunner. Hopefully the production team learns from its own show’s protagonist and refocuses on the music.
Game of Thrones takes back its time slot from Vinyl starting next Sunday, April 24th at 9pm on HBO.