TV Recap: Vinyl, Series Premiere

Written by Dylan Brandsema

Vinyl Poster

The first 30 minutes of the Vinyl premiere are very good. It’s almost a shame they’re so good, because it seems to hit a point shortly after where it doesn’t seem want to put any effort into trying something new. This new HBO series comes to us from the writer/director combo of Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese, who famously brought us Boardwalk Empire, which had a terrific run until its disastrous fifth season, and of course the great Wolf of Wall Street, this time with the help of The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger.

Vinyl centers on (or, I should say, wants to center on) record executive Richie Finestra, (played competently by Bobby Cannavale), head of American Century Records. Finest is struggling to keep his label off the ground and negotiate a deal to sell it to German record executives — all while trying be a good family man and keep track of his personal life. If that comes off sounding generic, only moderately interesting, and uninspired, that’s because it is. Martin Scorsese is a filmmaker who, at this point in five decade long career, has the power and the ability to do whatever in the world he wants, and Vinyl is a shining example of a filmmaker doing absolutely nothing with the opportunities in front of him, and instead treading the same old ground he’s walked several times before.

Bobby Canavale in HBO's Vinyl
Photo Courtesy of HBO

Of course, this premiere episode wasn’t written by Scorsese (that duty belongs to Winter and George Mastras), but all the Scorsese-isms we’ve come to expect from the seasoned director are front and center: slow motion, character establishment and development through straightforward narration, heaping mounds of drugs (in this case, it’s mountains of cocaine), constant swearing, and of course, rock ‘n roll music. It isn’t that a director revisiting and reusing his usual bag of tricks is bad thing by default, it’s that he isn’t doing anything to use them in a way that makes the story feel fresh, and genuine, that brings this pilot down so quickly.

So much time of this pilot is spent waiting patiently for something exciting to happen, and when it finally manages to get there, it still manages to feel unearned, insincere, and, somehow, shoed in. When Vinyl doesn’t suffer from being too familiar, it suffers instead from trying to be too many things at once. The episode winds up turning into a messy concoction of bad ingredients so out of touch with itself that it’s sometimes impossible to even tell what the show was going for in the first place.

Winter is a frustrating writer. Dialogue and often comedic banter between characters is certainly his strong suit, and Scorsese is most certainly an actor’s director. The problem is that not enough of an effort was made to move things along when they probably should have been, and not enough care was taken to the scenes where things finally start to get going. It’s nice to know that Winter/Scorsese understand the value and pauses and slow, quiet moments, but when your pilot runs 110 minutes (it feels like 180) and the first 60 consist almost entirely of characters gossiping and ribbing with one another, I can’t help but feel like it’s time for this writer-director duo to stick to feature films instead.

There’s a lot of characters in Vinyl. Sometimes too many (a problem Boardwalk Empire also suffered from), and sometimes not enough doing enough for me to be truly invested. As mentioned, Cannavale does a passable job as Fenestra, and there’s some pretty enjoyable scenes with Andrew Dice Clay and Ray Romano, but so much of the supporting cast feels wasted. Olivia Wilde, Jack Quaid, and Paul Ben-Victor, among a laundry list of other names, all feel like they’re only there to give the series as many recognizable faces as possible without actually doing anything with them. If there’s one saving grace, it’s Juno Temple. She plays Jamie C. Vine, an A&R assistant to American Century Records (who Cannavale refers to as “Sandwich Girl”) who comes across a “raw,” almost-thrash-style punk band called The Nasty Bits. In an attempt to get them signed to the label, she attends one of their shows – in which they’re booed off the stage – finds a physical, sexual attraction to the lead singer, (played by Mick Jagger’s son, James). In what’s probably the most interesting portion, she proceeds to sleep with him right before telling him that their relationship should be strictly business-oriented. Color me misguided, but I want to see a show about her instead.

Vinyl Logo

Nothing with this much talent involved deserves to be this boring, and nothing with this impressive a level of production value (particularly the period costuming and sets) deserves to be so visually dry and bromidic. Top that all off with an aimless, unenthusiastic, schizophrenic and desultory script, and you have a series pilot that aims for the high road but can’t find even find the bridge to take itself there.

I will close by talking about the ending. In an attempt to bookend the pilot by flashing back to the opening sequence, Richie wanders into a club and watches a band perform when all of a sudden, in an almost Shyamalan-esque (twist?) ending, the walls begin to crack, ceiling fixtures and furniture go flying, and the three-story building our protagonist is in collapses on top of him. In the pilot’s final moments, his eyes flash open, he slowly emerges from the rubble – only moderately dusty – exits the disaster site, and stumbles the street. Initially, this seems like a dream sequence, or some sort of hallucination, but the previews for the episodes in the coming weeks proved otherwise. What does this mean? Is it a metaphor? Is our protagonist invincible? Or is the series going for some sort of surrealism/dream-like storytelling in which certain events didn’t really happen? Frankly, I don’t know or care.

VINYL OVERALL RATING: 2.5/10

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Dylan Brandsema is a staff writer for Pop-Break specializing in film and television. When he isn’t writing reviews or spending too much analyzing the medium, he’s writing and directing his own independent films as well as drinking way too much soda. Currently at full-time film major at Full Sail University, Dylan eats, sleeps, and breathes everything related to the cinema. You can follow him on Twitter @SneakyOstrich69.
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