Vinyl, HBO’s latest big prestige drama is a 1970s period piece created by Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, and Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire). Sunday night’s two-hour premiere was directed by Scorsese. Vinyl follows the fortunes of record producer Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), once massively successful, whose life and business are crumbling around him. The show opens in New York in 1973, and also flashes back to the 1950s, when Richie started as the manager of Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh), aka “Little Jimmy Little”. The cast includes business partner Ray Romano, wife Olivia Wilde, James Jagger (son of Mick) as an up-and-coming rocker, and Juno Temple as the A&R assistant who discovers him.
There’s a lot to love in Vinyl; great cast and great direction chief among them. There are all the inherent pleasures in a period piece—crazy 1970s costumes and hair, gritty old New York the way it used to be, and of course, great music. Plenty of fun name-dropping, and the intermingling of the real with the fictional. The premiere does the job of a premiere, which is to establish some interesting characters and premises, and lets us wonder where it will lead. The characters are both larger than life—bombastic, flamboyant, on edge—and smaller than life—nebbishy, in over their heads. All of this works.
And then there’s the stuff that doesn’t work. There were shots in which I was hyper-aware of budget constraints, such as the camera focusing on the front of a car in order to avoid having too many period cars on-screen. The “gritty New York streets” look too fake too often. Yes, they’re sets or CGI of necessity, and yes, it’s utterly forgivable if the rest of the show turns out to be great, but I noticed. There were anachronisms, which is to be expected. One glaring one was referring to Connecticut as the home of Lyme Disease. That’s over ten years out of date! (While the disease was named in 1975, it was known only to scientists until the mid-1980s.) The concern about anachronisms is not a request for every show to be Mad Men. Vinyl, though, isn’t a show set in an era, it’s very much about the era, and if there’s too much sloppiness, it becomes nothing but name-dropping, like the flashback scene in which Richie and Lester first meet, and they rattle off the names of artists and songs. Remember that? Remember that? It’s a fun game we all play, but it gets old.
Certainly the episode dragged; a two-hour premiere was a bad idea. And it did feel a little played out, like Wolf of Wall Street with rock and roll; Marty doing Marty. All of which could shake out as the series progresses. It also felt a little preachy, like, ‘Hey, kids, let me explain to you what it was really like’. Again, this could be a matter of the show getting its sea legs.
There was one scene—a small moment, really—that seemed to encapsulate the series. At his birthday party, Richie’s wife “outs” him: Despite having been telling stories about it for years, he was never actually at Woodstock. Yes, they had tickets and backstage passes, just as he’s always said, but they blew it off and stayed home to have sex. Richie says he’d never have been able to hold his head up if he admitted he skipped Woodstock. That felt real, and like a lot of “I was really there” stories are, beneath the surface. I was almost there. I would have been there but wasn’t. I was adjacent to being there. We, the audience, watch with knowing eyes as if we were there, but were we? Was Richie? That’s interesting, and more nuanced than turning the show into rock and roll Zelig.