Vinyl hasn’t become the must-see or most-talked about hit that HBO was hoping for it to be. The show debuted to underwhelming viewership numbers on it’s Valentine’s Day premiere, and has been doing average numbers throughout its first season (even though it was renewed for a second season by HBO shortly after its premiere). The show had a lot going for it. Martin Scorsese co-created the show with Mick Jagger and The Sopranos/Boardwalk Empire alum Terrence Winter. Hell, Scorsese himself even directed the pilot episode. The show has an impressive cast and the idea of setting the show in the early-70s New York music scene was pretty exciting. I can’t speak for everyone, but all those ingredients sounded right up my alley, and I’ve been a dedicated viewer of the show ever since.
But nobody else has been talking about a show that was so buzzed about coming into 2016. It’s aired, and the season finale is airing tonight (during Game One of the Spurs-Grizzlies in the playoffs). Vinyl is not a perfect show, but it’s a remarkable and special one. Like Scorsese and Winter’s most recent television collaboration, the critically acclaimed Boardwalk Empire, Vinyl is a beautifully authentic looking period piece. The show does a remarkable job of showing what New York City would’ve looked like in the early 70s. Druggies & pimps litter the streets of Manhattan like the garbage that piles up on each street corner. We get to see the nitty-gritty recreations of famous night clubs like Max’s Kansas City (a scene where we see a young Bob Marley playing and an even younger Bruce Springsteen is seen hanging out and enjoying the music).
Speaking of which, legendary artists from this era appear left and right on the show (in the form of an actor, obviously). In a sequence where protagonist Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) and his business partner Zak (Ray Romano) are at a record producer’s house in Los Angeles and members of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young are seen talking with guests at this party. Later in that episode, Richie and Zak head to Las Vegas in an attempt to sign Elvis Presley, who had turned into a nostalgia act destined to live the rest of his days as such thanks to Col. Parker (played wonderfully by brilliant character actor Gene Jones). This is just one of the many examples of famous artists from this era being apart of these characters lives, and how they impact the show going forward.
Because this is a Martin Scorsese production, and it’s set in the 1970s music business, the soundtrack is fantastic. Not only do we get to hear the greatest hits from this particular era, but we also get to hear some oldies in flashbacks when we look into the troubled past of Richie Finestra, our cocaine-sniffing protagonist. To introduce Richie’s past in the pilot episode, we cut to an actor performing as Bo Diddley as we magically get swept into 1960s New York, when Richie was working for the mob and trying to put his foot in the door in the music industry. This unique transition from scene to scene or era to era happened pretty frequently in the beginning of the show but isn’t as such as the season begins to wrap up.
But what’s easily the best part of this show are the characters, and the performances by the actors in their respected roles. Bobby Cannavale has emerged to become one of our most versatile and best character actors in recent years, and he gives a complex and deeply disturbed performance as Richie, a man who’s been through hell and back in his life, and whose life doesn’t really seem to be getting back on track any time soon. This is easily the best I’ve seen Cannavale in any medium to date, and when the show has its problems, Cannavale’s performance is always there to make the program must-watch television. Olivia Wilde also does some of her best work as Richie’s wife Devon, who also has problems of her own. Her husband appears to be out of control at times, and Devon is stuck raising their two young children while Richie’s out doing God knows what.
Ray Romano does some really great dramatic work as Zak, Richie’s aforementioned business partner who could’ve made millions of dollars by selling the company before Richie sabotaged the deal early on in the show. Romano seems perfect to play the “straight-man” character on the show, who has a stable relationship with his wife and kids, and just wants to do the right thing in the end. All the actors in the show are fantastic, which has become the norm in HBO television productions. Everybody brings their A-game to this project, and having Martin Scorsese as your executive producer and director of the pilot also helps.
To be honest, the show does have its flaws here and there. The storyline involving Juno Temple’s character on the show is the least compelling and interesting of every other one. And is the case with a lot of Scorsese’s work (even his very best) is that the show can feel a little bloated and drag on a bit from time to time. The show can be very entertaining and engaging at times, but I’d be lying if I said that the show does feel a little too big for itself at times. This might have to do with the fact that the production budget for the first season ballooned to $100 million+, and that Winter is being forced out as the showrunner after this season. I’d love to have seen what Winter would’ve contributed to the next season of Vinyl, but I guess we have to settle for what new showrunner Scott Z. Burns will do.
However, it’s been a very impressive first season of HBO’s Vinyl. It’s not a perfect television show, and far from what The Sopranos was during its first season, but I feel that if HBO gives the show some time to breath and find its groove (which the show has finally been doing in its last couple of episodes), this could potentially be the next big hit for the premium cable service. It’s a shame that Terrence Winter had to get fired from the show, because the man is a terrific writer and undoubtedly has a vast knowledge of the music industry. Hopefully Jagger and Scorsese will continue to be as involved as they were in the first season, and Vinyl can continue being one of the most unique and entertaining shows on television that more people will watch in the years to come.
The show can be watched in its entirety on HBO GO or HBO Now.