Hit or Sh**: HBO’s VINYL
In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.
For pretty much any music fan, regardless of age, New York has consistently been a mecca of music culture, no matter the changing times and temperaments of the United States and the rest of the globe. It’s exactly why the premise of HBO’s new series VINYL sounded so incredibly promising; a story following a music executive as he tears through New York in the early 70s attempting to capture the plethora of incredible sounds pulsating through the city at the time. Add to that an executive producer credits from Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger, combining Scorsese’s flair for gangsterism and Jagger’s musical clout to give the show a satisfying edge and authenticity, and there should be a guaranteed hit on our hands as a result. Unfortunately, a sprawling, bloated two hour pilot that feels more like a nostalgia trip than a genuine exploration of a time and place leaves little hope for VINYL to truly take off as a series.
No amount of bell bottoms and expressive neckerchiefs will save you now
VINYL drops us immediately into the topsy-turvy life of Richie Finestra, played competently by Bobby Cannavale, who begins the episode attempting to score coke while highly anxious. In the midst of his coke binge, he hears a brand new sound spilling out of a nightclub and sees dozens of New Yorkers rushing to check it out. Bobby stumbles in after them to find none other than the New York Dolls tearing up the club and is instantly transported by what he’s seeing and hearing. Disappointingly, everything about how this scene plays out feels tired and awkward. It’s very difficult to get caught up in the thrills of seeing this wholly new and original band perform for the first time. This ends up serving as a serviceable metaphor for the whole pilot; it’s difficult to get as swept up in everything as these characters are themselves.
Richie is a man very much at the end of his rope and close to losing the record label he built from nothing due to all his major artists either changing labels or burning out into dead-end careers. While it’s fun to hear Richie effortlessly name drop some of the big musicians he’s known and worked with, it’s clear the rapid transition from the 60s to the 70s is hitting him hard. His two plans for solvency are highly risky and easily the most compelling parts of the episode; he plans on signing Led Zeppelin, right before they explode in the United States, while also selling the label to a giant German media conglomerate. The conglomerate won’t buy up Richie without Zeppelin, and Zeppelin’s Jewish manager won’t sign onto a label owned by Germans. It’s a huge mess, and could have undermined Richie entirely if a promising act called the Nasty Bits hadn’t fallen directly into his lap ‒ literally ‒ by a secretary, potentially being Richie’s gateway into the punk explosion just on the horizon. It’s a classic case of a character’s problems being solved for them rather than them taking action to solve them themselves.
None of these people should be anywhere near this smug
VINYL very much wants to be BOARDWALK EMPIRE or THE SOPRANOS set in the record industry, but lacks the betrayal and intrigue to set up as compelling a character as Richie could be. Despite him being on the brink of losing his empire, it feels Richie has it a little too easy. He’s surrounded by yes men (including, strangely, Ray Ramano of all people) who may be seedy, but not necessarily ready to stab him in the back. Richie’s wife also deserves sainthood for how entirely she tolerates his late night antics. In general, it’s hard to see Richie as an anti-hero, which in turn makes it difficult to care about what happens to him in general; his back is not up against the wall enough and it doesn’t appear he’s willing to truly do anything to keep his label in one piece. Even for absolutely die hard fans of this era of music, it’s incredibly difficult to imagine anyone finding a reason to really commit to hours and hours of Richie’s very mildly complicated life.
Vinyl airs on Mondays on HBO