Nothing Up His Sleeve

HBO can afford disasters.  Since they don’t run on a pure ratings model, but depend for their business on a sustainable production roster and critical goodwill, the fact that their new and star-studded series, Vinyl, is attracting far fewer eyeballs than shows that got canceled far more quickly doesn’t really matter that much.  And that’s…good?  I guess?  I mean, I’d hate for the very expensive production to flame out so disastrously that it would hobble the network’s ability to create excellent original programming, which it does on a shockingly routine basis.  But, on the other hand, Vinyl is a real hunk of junk, a wobbling disaster that someone should have had the good sense to murder in its crib, and if it were subject to the old rules of success and failure, it might teach the people involved in its production some much-needed lessons in humility.

It’s not as if there’s no talent involved in Vinyl, the story of an out-of-control record executive in the early ’70s attempting to right both his flagging label and his disastrous personal life.  If anything, there’s too many cooks for such a weak broth:  individually, the production team (legendary director Martin Scorsese, rock god Mick Jagger, music industry scribe Rich Cohen, and big-time TV writers Terence Winter and George Mastras) are all incredibly accomplished, but they may be too far apart in direction and background to do anything worthwhile together.  There’s no shortage of big names in the cast, either, both from a talent perspective (in the first two episodes alone, we get the magnetic Bobby Cannavale and swell turns from Max Casella and Ray Romano) and from a namedropping one, with everyone from Robert Plant (played ridiculously by something called Zebedee Row) to Andy Warhol (much better assays by John Cameron Mitchell) showing up to establish that, yes, it is the 1970s.  But for all the talent on display, the show is a trainwreck.

Part of the problem is the very conception of Vinyl.  It might have worked as an entirely fictionalized version of the ’70s rock scene, with barely recognizable analogues to our world’s music superstars but enough fictionalization to give it plausible deniability.  And it might have worked the other way, as a straight-up industry biopic with hot young actors (and wanna-be hot young actors; judging by a lot of the cast members, Vinyl is meant to be some kind of job creation program for the children of actual rock stars) playing our real-life idols.  But by having it both ways, the whole thing comes across as phony on every level:  the fake bands are corny and ill-conceived, like “Nasty Bits” (led by Mick Jagger’s real-world son James, and purporting to be a sort of Sex Pistols clone at a time when the closest you’d come to that was Dr. Feelgood or Kilburn and the High Roads), while the real bands are often absurd caricatures (most especially Row’s Robert Plant).  It’s the decision to play both sides that contributes to both the dramatic flatness of the series and the tendency to pick apart its many historical inaccuracies.

It’s this aspect that deserves a little special attention, because it seems so ineptly handled.  It can’t be attributed to the creators; in Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger, you have two people who actually lived through the New York rock milieu of the mid-’70s, and in Cohen, you have a third who researched it meticulously.  And, to be sure, a lot of the little scenic details — the set dressing and production design, essentially — are exactly, perfectly right.  But the overall picture is far too often absurd; the script’s determination to paint Cannavale as a visionary who saw literally every major development in pop music coming (he actually drives past Sedgwick Avenue the night hip-hop is invented!) makes the whole endeavor come across, as one perceptive review put it, like he’s the Forrest Gump of rock music.  It’s not that these things weren’t really all happening at the same time; it’s that no one person could possibly be at the center of it all.  Part of the beauty of cultural history is that it’s random, haphazard, a million little threads all weaving into the tapestry at once; Vinyl makes it seem like we’d all have been better off if we’d listened to one coked-up asshole.

The show has lots of other problems.  Cannavale’s character is a complete embodiment of the Difficult White Men trope, which is already more than a few years past its expiration date; it’s not there’s not still life in it, it’s that none of it come through here.  His character’s addiction is supposed to be indicative of the creative torment between his commercial ambition and his artistic brilliance, but he mostly just comes across as the exact sort of cokehead alpha shit who made America so unlivable from the ’80s on.  His involvement in a murder does nothing to further the plot other than ramp up the stakes in a pretty meaningless way; it’s as if the creators don’t trust enough that the story of a high-powered music executive during one of the most dynamic times in music history is enough to hold our attention.  (It does get the annoying-as-ever Andrew Dice Clay off our screens, though.)  The dream sequences are sometimes beautiful, but just as often are bewildering.

The pilot certainly looks like it was directed by Martin Scorsese — all dizzying overhead shots, intense staring into mirrors, electrically animated men dominating a room just by walking in — but it sure doesn’t feel like it; it feels like one of Terence Winter’s worst scripts.  When the episode ends with a building literally collapsing on Cannavale as he makes goofy faces at the New York Dolls to signal his aesthetic reawakening, we’re no longer in New York in the 1970s; we’re somewhere else, where the corn grows tall. I can barely remember the last time such a prestige series seemed so simultaneously incoherent and self-indulgent; it’s the fantasy 1970s from four men who all know the parts of the elephant, but who can’t put together a whole picture.  With Vinyl already renewed for a second season, it’s a good thing HBO doesn’t need us to watch it, because the first season has given us precious little reason to do so.

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