When the first trailers for the new HBO series Vinyl appeared online last year, the feeling that emanated from them was a mixed bag of emotions. There was excitement at the notion of Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese working on a TV series that centered on the music industry of the early ‘70s. There was also some thrill at knowing that Bobby Cannavale, a great character actor who tore through his one season run on Boardwalk Empire with the right notes of intelligence and malice. But there was also some suspicion in the mix. Why is there a fictionalized version of the New York Dolls happening onscreen? What’s with the scenery chewing acting? Why does this whole thing feel like the wet dream of some aging Rolling Stone editor who misses the good ol’ days? It all seemed too preposterous to have any whiff of truth to it.
Well, the first episode has aired, and for as much as I enjoyed seeing Scorsese directing with the same looseness and color that marked his previous triumph The Wolf Of Wall Street, the two-hour event was as absurd as those previews promised. For every detail the show got dead on with regards to the music industry (the heartbreaking flashbacks of a talented blues artist turned into a novelty recording artist in particular), the rest felt so strained and over-the-top and often cartoonish.
As Vinyl promises to be one of the more outlandish shows on television in this early part of the year, rather than doing the traditional writeup every week, I’m going to list out the most ridiculous things that happened in each episode. Spoilers will abound, so you’d do well to make sure you watch the show before you read these.
As a lifelong music nerd, I’m all for dramatic representations of music’s power over the mind, body, and spirit of the listener. But this… this is a bit much. In the midst of Century Records head Richie Finestra’s baptism into the world of proto-punk rock, to the tune of the New York Dolls’ brutally simple and impassioned “Personality Crisis,” the walls of the rec center that they’re playing in start to shake. Pipes burst loose from the walls dousing everyone in (most likely) toilet water. Then the entire structure starts to crack and collapses in a heap (using some of the jankiest CGI I’ve ever seen this side of Sharknado). I was convinced that this was going to all be a coke-fueled hallucination and we’d snap back to reality at some point. But, no, Richie pulls himself out of the rubble and staggers off into the night, sirens pealing in the background. And before you say it—yes, I know it’s a metaphor. Just not a very clever one.
If you haven’t seen this two-hour pilot for Vinyl, you’ve surely almost blinded yourself rolling your eyes at the above subject header. But I swear to you, it’s the truth. Playing a coke-fueled DJ threatening to withhold airplay of all Century Records artists after getting a snub from Donny Osmond, the Diceman is pure sleazy charm and barely-masked insanity. It gets even worse when, during his two-day bender, he summons Richie to his home, starts waving a gun around, and waxes philosophical about Frankenstein. Clay is so shockingly great, that I was sincerely disappointed when his character is dispensed with in very graphic fashion.
Seriously, that thing is doing 75% of the work in every scene that the former sitcom star is in. When it first appeared onscreen, I was actually startled when Romano’s character (promotions genius Zak Yankovich) started speaking, because I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.
Ms. Wilde has proven herself a fine screen presence in vehicles like Drinking Buddies and House M.D., but she’s way out of her league here. As the former Warhol ingenue and current wife to Richie, she looks the long, lean part of a glamorous woman in the ‘70s. She just can’t get a grip on the more dramatic elements required of this part. Just zip to the end of the episode when she furiously takes a swig of Chivas Regal and spits it in her drunk husband’s face to signal her disgust at his relapse into alcohol abuse. It’s the hammiest part of an already hammy show.
In the world of Vinyl, Century Records had a shot at signing Led Zeppelin after the band’s contract with Atlantic Records came up for renewal. So, when they renege on the deal, Richie approaches singer Robert Plant for an explanation. Played by relative newcomer Zebedee Row, this rock god minces and whinges as he balks at the royalty rate offered by Century with all the subtlety of a British panto. It’s even worse when he points to two giggling “birds” and promises to do to them what the label was going to do to his band. The only thing the show came close to getting right with Led Zep was Ian Hart’s portrayal of the band’s vicious and ill-tempered manager Peter Grant.
This is absolutely just a personal thing, but the writers of this episode (Terence Winter and George Mastras) took some pains to get a couple of digs in at the expense of U.K. glam band Slade during an early scene at the label. Say what you will about their ridiculous spelling of song titles and sartorial choices, but without them, we wouldn’t have Def Leppard, Twisted Sister, Oasis, Quiet Riot, and many other great rock bands of the past 30 years. Gotta give credit where credit is due.
Those things are terrifying.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste, and the author of Empire: The Unauthorized Untold Story, available in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter.