Every once in a while in Vinyl, Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) takes a ride in his car. It's a ride, not a drive — his chauffeur is at the wheel, naturally. He winds through the primitively dark streets of New York City, 1973, trembling in the rain-speckled windows, the lurid lights of downtown nightclubs and the seedy arcades of Times Square blinking and blurry. Sometimes he makes a phone call, or takes one, from a corded console receiver. Sometimes he's howling orders at a lackey, other times he's silent, staring forlornly through the window like a Sofia Coppola heroine.
But the camera keeps darting back to the car itself — particularly, its hood ornament, a gleaming Mercedes three-point star, the figurehead of Finestra's coddled egomobile. After a while, there are enough cuts to the thing to raise suspicion: what's so interesting about this thing? What are we supposed to get from this inert piece of metal flying through this buzzing, heady landscape? Is Vinyl sponsored by Mercedes?
A deeply corrupt and creative period
By this paragraph, you would be forgiven for assuming that Vinyl was a show about politics or the mob or maybe big business of some sort — going by the title and time period, perhaps plastics. But no, Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter's new HBO drama is about rock and roll — 1970s New York City rock and roll, perhaps beaten only by 1970s Los Angeles rock and roll in pound-for-pound debauchery and glamour. Vinyl takes place in the grimy downtown venues and drug-fueled offices of the deeply corrupt and creative period, but it's not a show about a rock star. Given all the weirdos and artists and muses and hangers-on of the time, Vinyl opted to focus on the suit.
Perhaps the rock star narrative was not interesting to executive producer Mick Jagger, who is clearly familiar with the beats. Jagger has spoken about his desire to capture the 1970s as seen through "wacky" lives of the kinds of execs he interfaced with during that time. Ahmet Ertegun, Walter Yetnikoff — these are larger than life characters, certainly dramatically worthy. But Jagger's interest in the dealings of corrupt, wealthy moguls intersects unfortunately with Scorsese's recent run of stories about corrupt wealthy moguls — or perhaps, too fortunately. Six hours in (HBO provided five episodes for review, including the two-hour pilot) Vinyl resembles little more than a by-the-numbers hybrid of The Wolf of Wall Street and Mad Men, with tighter pants.
Not that the show doesn't make an effort to weave a fundamental love of rock into the fabric of its polyester suiting. The pilot is bookended by a raucous New York Dolls show at the Mercer Arts Center — apocryphally coinciding with the building's 1973 collapse. After much meandering, this is where the show sells the fact that Finestra has a spiritual investment in the music, no matter how much of a drug-addled sellout he's become. Finestra is no Draper; he's cynical inasmuch as it serves his bottom line, but at the end of the day, he really does care about the music. Cannavale, a supremely appealing character actor who has appeared memorably in Boardwalk Empire and Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, sells this passion expertly. (Scorsese's strategy of turning side players into leading men pays off better here than it did with Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk.) The show frequently pauses for extended musical interludes, where tracks by everyone from The Carpenters to Ruth Brown are enacted in abstract proto-music video stagings. Scorsese's collaboration with Jagger has given him license to fully indulge his well-cataloged love of a good cue.
But the music isn't what sticks. The office is. Any connoisseur of 21st century prestige dramas about difficult boss men will recognize Vinyl's calculus immediately: mercurial figurehead, put-upon right-hand man (a sensitive, wry Ray Romano in this case), struggling female upstart who longs to break out of coffee runs and into the big leagues. Vinyl's pilot even mimics a violent plot point from Empire's pilot — a show it has the poor fortune of debuting after. Empire may theoretically be about label exec Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard,) but it's centerpieces are its musical performances, and Lucious musician sons bear most of the dramatic and emotional weight of the show. Even in a show focused on a label, couldn't Vinyl's weight be centered elsewhere?
One wonders, for instance, why the show couldn't have been about Juno Temple's sandwich gofer / eightball comptroller, who champions eventual American Century signees The Nasty Bits (the lead singer of which is played by Jagger's son James). It's relegated to approximately the same priority as the Young Lovers storyline in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, but it's easily the most immediate-feeling plot in a show jam-packed with them. Jamie Vine has to jump through the same patriarchal hoops as Peggy Olsen before her, but she's more reckless and sexually liberated, blissfully unconcerned (for now) with mixing business and pleasure. That's a show!
Or focus on the Bits themselves, unwittingly getting swept up in the soon-to-be-huge '70s punk moment. Or focus on Cece (Susan Heyward), Finestra's assistant, an otherwise no-nonsense career gal who gets emotionally involved with a client. Or — seriously! — focus on Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh), the bluesman who got dicked over by Finestra on his climb to success and now finds himself at the birthplace of hip-hop and DJ culture. Grimes' story is the most purely emotional thing happening in Vinyl, and the screen perks up whenever Essandoh walks into it. That's a show!
Instead, we're largely stuck with Finestra, as he contends with his struggling label. I'll admit, Finestra seems promising at first — even though the series begins with a straight-outta-Goodfellas "hey fuck you, I'm hot shit" bit of voice-over narration, the character is introduced to us as a decent hotshot who's on the straight and narrow, solemnly demurring when his colleagues proffer the fun-time powder and goofy cigarettes. I was interested in the story of a recovering addict in the midst of a notoriously unsober scene. Of course, by the end of the pilot he's back on coke, and with it he acquires his premium cable antihero powers: smashing guitars, delivering impassioned speeches, doing eccentric things in movie theaters.
Equally familiar is his marriage to former Andy Warhol It Girl Devon (Olivia Wilde) now stashed away in a poorly-lit Connecticut mansion to deal with their two children and reminisce about her wild past. Richie is having a drug-fueled career breakthrough; Devon wonders why their life and their family isn't enough for him. The cultural references are different, but we have seen this before (though, in flashback and in the present, Devon and Richie have much more kinky sex). It's unfortunate, because Cannavale and Wilde are doing good work with the characters they are given. The characters are even well-rendered on the page — it's just that I don't need to see another version of them just yet.
It's also odd to have another show dive headfirst into the celebrity impersonation game — alongside American Crime Story there are now two cable drama destinations if you're in the mood for campy impersonations of pop culture icons. Films like Almost Famous and Velvet Goldmine were among many to cover worlds that overlapped with Vinyl, but they hedged by focusing on fictional stand-ins for their real-life inspirations, freeing them up to speak more to the effect these figures had on their fans and followers. Scorsese and Jagger's differentiation strategy is to say fuck it, and just give us Robert Plant, Alice Cooper, and Lou Reed in full-on cover band drag. The effect is distracting, and doesn't even offer the looky-loo meta curiosity of Crime Story's celebrities-as-celebrities casting stunts.
But maybe that's why one would make a show about a suit instead of a rock star in 2016: scalability. A show about an artist or band may be interesting or diverting, but a show about an exec has legs. Why focus on one band, destined to crash and burn, when you can see multiple crashes and burns through the eyes of the man who writes their checks? A show about the Dolls or the Ramones would be relegated to the '70s; a show about their boss could stretch into the '80s and beyond. Vinyl may be a period piece, but its concerns are incredibly current. One iconic band isn't cool. You know what's cool? Six seasons and a movie of iconic bands.