Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 31, 2016)
When Boardwalk Empire ended in 2014, creator Terence Winter didn’t rest on his laurels too long. By 2016, he returned with co-creators Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger and Rich Cohen to produce Vinyl, a series about the record business in the early 1970s.
The Blu-ray includes all of Season One’s 10 episodes across four discs. The plot synopses come straight from the Blu-ray menus.
Pilot: “In 1973 NYC, record exec Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) battles past and current demons as he and his partners are on the verge of selling their struggling label.”
On the surface, Vinyl should be right up my alley, as its focus on the music industry sounds fascinating. And maybe down the road, the series will come to life and fulfill its potential.
In the “Pilot”, however, we get a pretty lackluster launch to Vinyl. The show seems more concerned with the drugs and bacchanalia of the era than the actual music, and that’s a drawback. Sure, the period put the “sex and drugs” in rock ‘n’ roll, but we need more than that, and the episode’s attempts to develop other areas fall flat. Well, the pilot for Boardwalk Empire seemed mediocre too, so I won’t judge Vinyl on one program.
Yesterday Once More: “Richie delivers a bombshell that shocks American Century’s would-be buyers – and blindsides his record label partners Zak (Ray Romano) and Skip (JC MacKenzie).”
I get it – I get that Vinyl wants to make the record industry look like organized crime. And I get that the seedy side of the real music business certainly runs afoul of legal areas.
That said, so far Vinyl works too hard to dig into that aspect of things. This makes it feel less like a story set in the music biz and more just another twist on the same old gangster stuff without a lot of originality.
Some stylistic choices don’t help. The “interstitials” with bad impressions of music notables like Jerry Lee Lewis and Bobby Blue Bland become an active distraction as well. To date, these factors make Vinyl a spotty combination of gritty realism and glossy fantasy. Well, we still have eight shows to go!
Whispered Secrets: “Richie trims the American Century roster; Devon (Olivia Wilde) tries her hand at fundraising in the suburbs.”
On the surface, “Secrets” moves along the narrative, but I feel like it doesn't really go anywhere. We get some of the same topics and themes as the first two shows and not much to make the series more endearing. I’m not giving up hope on Vinyl yet, but I admit Season One’s first one-third disappoints.
The Racket: “Richie charms a funk superstar; Skip looks to unload a shipment of Donny Osmond LPs.”
In the “Pilot”, Richie became involved in a crime that casts a shadow over the rest of the season. Perhaps this will pay dividends down the road, but so far, it seems like a mistake, as it gave the series much more of a GoodFellas vibe than it needs.
This means another spotty episode from “Racket”. I think the “Pilot” crime adds nothing to the season – to date, at least – and creates unnecessary distractions. At least the development of the Richie/Lester (Ato Essandoh) relationship shows promise; it’s the only really interesting thread I’ve seen so far.
He In Racist Fire: “Devon plays the vixen at dinner with Richie, Hannibal (Daniel J. Watts) and Cece (Susan Heyward); Kip (James Jagger) faces a band dilemma.”
I don’t want to get my hopes up, but “Fire” boasts actual glimmers of intrigue. This is mainly because it spends more time with the music side of the series and less with the seedy melodrama. It’s still not a great show, but at least it points in the right direction.
Cyclone: “Richie falls in a deeper well of depravity as Devon seeks refuge with old friends at the Chelsea Hotel.”
Arguably the series’ greatest weakness comes from its lead. I’ve liked Cannavale in supporting parts, where his energy makes him memorable, but as the main character, he overwhelms.
Granted, some of that suits the character, as his drug and demon-fueled rampages lend themselves to Cannavale’s strengths. However, Cannavale plays most of his scenes with the same manic aggression. Add to that the world’s worst David Bowie impersonator and “Cyclone” disappoints.
The King and I: “On a hunch, Richie and Zak travel to Las Vegas in hopes of persuading Elvis Presley to switch labels.”
“King” leaves the series in something of a holding pattern. It offers superficial movement in terms of some narrative areas – especially the Rickie/Zak relationship – but it doesn’t go as far as I’d like. The Elvis subplot feels gratuitous as well and comes across like nothing more than an excuse to feature an Elvis impersonator.
EAB: “A desperate Richie approaches Galasso (Armen Garro) about a loan; Kip gets a crash course in the blues from Lester.”
Once again, Vinyl gives us another mediocre show. A few plot areas develop, but they remain less than enchanting – and too many of them seem predictable. While I want Season One to motivate toward a big finale, it seems stuck in neutral.
By the way, the series’ tendency to put characters at the birth of so many new musical movements gets old. Punk, disco – you name it, and Vinyl personalities happen to glimpse their roots. This feels like a form of “name-dropping” and it becomes silly.
Rock and Roll Queen: “Richie faces a dilemma as the heat is turned up in the Buck Rogers murder case.”
With little time left in Season One, Vinyl becomes sappy where it needs to turn lively. The series’ lack of interesting characters really bites it in the behind, as my general disinterest in Richie and the others means I don’t care where the stories go. We’ll see if anything intriguing pops up in the season finale.
Alibi: “Zak maps out a dangerous plan to bring down Richie; Kip’s excesses threaten an important Nasty Bits gig.”
Vinyl’s first year concludes with another spotty show. I just never bought into the series’ heavy gangster theme, and that component dominates here. Add other moments of contrived drama and the season finishes without anything much of a bang.
Which remains a disappointment, though obviously not a surprise. Vinyl comes with enough promise that I’ll give Season Two a shot, but Season One suffers from so many clichés that it never makes a name for itself. The characters leave me cold and mean that Season One finishes as a missed opportunity.