Is HBO’s ‘Vinyl’ a Genuine Long Player?

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New series set in New York’s music business is a mixed & sometimes mixed-up bag

Note to readers: This review contains spoilers

Vinyl-TV-show-on-HBO-season-one

Yes, they could be a 1970s record company

Vinyl (series premiere)
HBO
Directed by Martin Scorsese

Update (2/18/16): Word comes that despite the premiere’s so-so ratings on the network’s linear service, HBO has renewed Vinyl for a second season.

If the pilot episode of HBO’s Vinyl was a new band looking for a record deal, I wouldn’t sign them. But I would keep an ear peeled to their future demos and shows.

As a devotee of many HBO series and admirer of the channel’s pioneering support of quality long-form TV – I turned my cable TV back on just to keep up with The Sopranos – I’m their target audience. As someone who lived in New York City and worked in and around the music business from 1975 onward, Vinyl is based on, in a way, what had been my life too, making me both a prime potential viewer and at the same time a tough customer.

And alas, like the possible issues with the audio format the series takes its name from, the first two-hour segment, directed by Martin Scorsese, felt somewhat warped and scratchy. (Read our previous preview here.)

To its credit, it starts and ends with “the buzz” – record company president Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) getting off on The New York Dolls rocking out at downtown Manhattan’s Mercer Arts Center. At another point he’s also playing mirror star along with the stereo, mock-strumming a Bo Diddley guitar. Any real music lover knows those moments well and Cannavale captures them well.

Which leads to what works in the mixed bag that is Vinyl. Most notably Cannavale, whose main character seemed to do little more than yell in the trailers but gets filled out nicely over the two-hour premiere as a flesh and blood guy you like – essential to keep viewers coming back.

trailer-vinyl

Will ‘Vinyl’ go gold? It remains to be seen.

And how can a music fan not like a show that in this day and age evokes Big Joe Turner and Bo Diddley as icons and mentions the band Suicide? Plus there’s some great acting turns. Ray Romano feels utterly natural as American Century promo head Zak Yankovich, like many record guys I knew. Paul Ben-Victor nails his old-school music business character. And even if (at least in the premiere) his part is written far too over the top, Andrew Dice Clay wows as radio power broker Frank “Buck” Rogers. Yep, the Diceman returneth to show he has some serious acting chops.

But then there’s the wobbly bits: a backstage exchange at Madison Square Garden with an absurdly fictitious “Robert Plant” before an unconvincing “Led Zeppelin” takes the stage. The coke-fueled fight with Rogers that leads to his death and the dumping of his body (Clay is listed as in seven episodes on IMDB.com, which augurs agreeably). Followed by the Mercer Arts Center collapse (the real one did, albeit less dramatically) from which Finestra rises out of the rubble. Could the point that our hero will rise over adversity be any less overly dramatic? Could this new show be over-reaching and stretch credulity in any less cringe-worthy ways?

The laughs are few and far between, and this in a business that was itself in a way a wisecrack filled with wisecrackers. And the drama screams “drama” like a stereo turned up to 11. Where’s the Scorsese magic?

And there’s the kids: James Jagger, son of Vinyl executive producer Mick, playing a budding punk rock star. And Juno Temple, daughter of film and music video director Julien, as an ambitious junior A&R exec hoping to ride his pony up the hill of success. Neither offered much more than a “we shall see” as they play a major plot thread together in coming episodes.

I’ll tune in next week but I’m not even close to a believer. Sadly, Vinyl may just be some kinda cool 45s and not a true and coherent 12-inch long-playing album, much less have the makings of a future box set to be treasured as the special music that touched our souls.


Rob Patterson
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