'Vinyl': EW review
He huffs, he puffs, he snorts yards of blow up his nose. He’s Richie Finestra, flailing founder of an imploding record company, American Century, and he’s exactly what TV doesn’t need right now — one more anguished, toxic, middle-aged male anti-hero raging against the dying light of his powers. Played by Bobby Cannavale with a ferociousness that sucks you in even as it wears you down, Richie is the black hole center of Vinyl, a drama set in ‘70s New York at the dawn of punk and hip-hop, produced by the super-group of Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), Rich Cohen, and Mick Jagger. It’s a sometimes thrilling period piece dulled by new century Bleak TV blah blah blah.
Vinyl takes us behind the music and into the greasy machinery of the record industry, a business of bad faith deals, cultural appropriation, cooked books, and payola. The poisoned history of American Century functions as metaphor for Watergate America – of America, period – and Richie’s dubious efforts to reboot his franchise with relevancy (with art!) is an allegory for culture making. I think Vinyl is called Vinyl only because Empire was already taken. The show gives good Me Decade optics. It’s head to toe with shaggy haircuts, puffy afros, bushy mustaches, backless tops, wide lapels, hairy chests, high-waist slacks, and bell-bottom jeans. But Vinyl is also steeped in the soul of the ‘70s, too — or rather, the most commonly accepted negative articulation of that zeitgeist. It’s a portrait of culture mired in malaise, but it’s a dull, same-old-song one, and beholden to the perspective to a tedious degree. The prospect of this series slavishly mirroring and mythologizing the decade doesn’t exactly spin my disco ball. Period TV dramas need to shake up their formulaic approach for expressing time and place and producing relevancy and resonance. And who knows? Maybe Vinyl can ultimately become that trailblazer. (I’m imagining the Inglorious Basterds version of Vinyl, a show that plays to history, then blows it up. The series finale: Richie changes history by turning The Ramones into the biggest band ever.)
For now, Vinyl is just rock n’ roll riff on so many other cable dramas about Mad Men Breaking Bad and producing American Horror Story. Richie’s maybe-redemptive, maybe-ruinous saga is catalyzed by two events: an absurd and oopsie crime (this is Scorseseland; even entertainment industry suits can be as GoodFellas) and a New York Dolls concert that literally brings the house down. Scorsese, who directed the two-hour pilot, shoots the latter sequence like an apocalypse in all senses of the word – as near-mystical epiphany; as end-of-the-world catastrophe. Both are true to Richie. He walks away from this punk Pentecost with his brain on fire and inspired to re-energize his moribund label. But he also walks away from this brush with death with his old drug addiction violently reactivated. Scorsese gives us an image of Richie as revenant, emerging from the ground and covered with dust. He’s born again a walking dead at the same time – an illuminated zombie.
Richie’s maniacal pursuit of resurrection by chasing the super-sounds of the ‘70s provides opportunity for strivers like Jamie (Juno Temple), a secretary who brings him a promising punk band, and old pros like Lester (Ato Essandoh), a used, abused, and discarded blues artist who leverages his experience to direct a new generation of musicians. But Richie’s partners (including Ray Romano, almost unrecognizable in a bowl cut and beard) are less enthusiastic. Having spiritually sold-out long ago, they’re ready to cash-out as we find them in the premiere. Richie’s actions derail their retirement plans and threaten the security of their twilight years. His wife, Devon (Olivia Wilde), isn’t happy with reborn/relapsed Richie, either, but she’s unhappy, anyway. A photographer, she’s a caged bird trapped in the safe, clean suburbs, unplugged from New York’s gritty and electric downtown art scene that once gave her life.
I wasn’t blown away by Scorsese’s direction of Vinyl’s bloated pilot. It alternately lacks for energy and personality, or gives too much. That aforementioned concert – which is presented in two parts and bookend the pilot – is a flashy rush, but it’s cliché flashy (zooms, slow-mo, vertiginous camera turns), and so heavy-handed that the sequence flirts with ridiculousness. The pilot throws up a mess of vision and leaves Winter and his writers and directors with the challenge of wrestling it to the ground. It takes awhile. While finding itself, or trying to, Vinyl amuses with dark comedy and clever intersections with music history. In episode 3, a winning storyline with a great payoff finds over-educated, over—his-head junior A&R exec Clark (Jack Quaid) trying to woo Alice Cooper (a fantastic Dustin Ingram) away from his band and sign him to a solo contract. Surreal musical interludes with actors performing as Janis Joplin, Karen Carpenter, and more, shot as ethereal, haunting entities, and are lovely gems unto themselves and enrich the storytelling with their reminders of inspiration, tragedy, and injustice. The soundtrack choices crackle with meaning and wit. In episode 4, a scene in which Skip (J.C. MacKenzie), the head of sales, hustles to clean up a scam involving an overrun of Donny Osmond records is set – ironically – to The Who’s “We Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
Vinyl’s perspective on music is romantic, but it’s also consistently tempered with sober wisdom. Punk is framed as pure, raw, invigorating energy and dead-end nihilism. Kip (James Jagger), the lead singer of Nasty Bits, American Century’s big bet for the future, sums up what he likes to write about thusly: “F—in’. Fightin’. Nothin’.” While trying to recruit former flame Andrea Zito (Annie Parisse) to be American Century’s new marketing exec, Richie thunders his philosophy: “The idea is ‘new.’ Not fed through a machine so hard that you can’t feel the f—ing intestines of the artist and the music!” Andrea’s moved by this, but also wary of it, too, and keenly, quietly aware that Richie’s mission is more his own desperate, self-serving hero project than serving art. “’New’ and ‘alive’ is subjective,” she says, choosing her words carefully. “It’s not a vision for a company.” Given how much of our lives are super-saturated with pop culture, Vinyl could have great value as commentary and satire about culture making.
Where Vinyl struggles the most is getting you invested in the characters and caring about their ambitions. Despite a pilot that turns Richie into a sympathetic but troubled Don Quixote, an idealist tilting at windmills to redeem his company while riding a runaway white horse (key: “white horse” = “cocaine”), I found myself hating him more often than not, and most of his American Century goon squad, too — for how they run their business, for how they treat their artists, for how they neglect their wives and families. While the dark comedy can entertain, it can also subvert. A scene in which Richie and Devon do couples counseling squanders an opportunity to invest us more in their relationship and provide us with deeper insight into their relationship so it can instead amuse us by satirizing couples counseling. That aforementioned “absurd and oopsie crime” is also a miscalculation. The ramifications carry forward, but poorly, creating narrative drag, and worse, it frames Richie as something worse than he is. I’m not sure why everyone thought this was a good idea — to cultivate some season-long suspense and stakes? To make sure we never forget and always feel that Richie is a fallen soul living on borrowed time? Because Team Scorsese can’t resist indulging their crime-pulp worldview/orientation? – but it’s a bad idea. I’m counting the minutes until Vinyl finds a way to wriggle free of it.
Cannavale gives it everything he’s got, but Richie himself isn’t worthy of this effort. In him, I see only a bunch of hideous male archetype tics and damage trying to cohere into something original but not getting there. He’s got a failed artist issue. He’s got daddy and mommy issues. He’s wracked with guilt. He’s starved for significance. He’s an addict. Man, is he an addict. I’d suggest a drinking game in which we take shots each time Richie does drugs, but our livers might explode by episode 5. (If Mick Jagger’s biggest contribution to the series is providing writers with anecdotes from his career, I imagine they all start like this: “I remember one time hanging out with the record label guy who did a ton of blow, and then…”) I pity for Richie; I want to feel something more and better. And maybe I will. Episode 4 gave me hope. Written by Deborah Cahn and directed by S.J. Clarkson, “The Racket” is one of those “crazy day at the office” episodes, and for the first time, all the varied elements achieve a pleasing harmony. If Vinyl can make more music like this, it might be able to pop. B–