Sunday night is when HBO’s Vinyl airs. I’ve watched six episodes, and each one has brought diminishing returns. This week, instead of watching, I’m blogging about it in the hopes that I can make you join the ranks for former Vinyl viewers like me. I’d say “spoiler alert,” but I don’t care if I ruin this show for you.
As Gavin Edwards said in the New York Times: “If you’ve got a particular fondness for the record business, or 1970s decor, or people grimacing after inhaling lines of cocaine, then this is the program for you.” There’s more to the show than that. One part is the music. OM told me that I should include music near the top of each post, so people can listen while they read. Fair enough. There have been a few of notable soundtrack covers, so far. Here are three.
Tunde Adebimpe from TV on the Radio doing Looking Glass’ “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)”:
Aimee Mann doing the Carpenter’s “Yesterday Once More”:
And Neko Case doing Loggins & Messina’s “Danny’s Song”:
Another part is the problematic content. Simply put, Vinyl sucks. The writing sucks, the acting sucks, the directing sucks. The creative team includes Martin Scorcese, Mick Jagger, and Terrence Winter, who also worked on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, so it should be pretty good, right? It’s actually worse than I could have imagined. Here’s an overview.
Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) is the head honcho at American Century, a record company struggling for money and relevance. He’s also a cocaine addict, a bad husband and father, a cocaine addict, a terrible friend and boss, a cocaine addict, and a killer probably guilty of murder and vehicular homicide. Oh, and a cocaine addict. His drug use is near constant and cartoonish.
As the show begins, Richie is sitting in his car, hours after bludgeoning a radio dee-jay named Buck Rogers (Andrew Dice Clay) to death and hours before sabotaging the sale of American Century to a European label. Why did Richie kill Buck? It’s unclear. A fracas began when Buck, on a two-day bender fueled by coke provided by Richie at a business meeting at a sex club (more on the show’s approach to gender issues below) as a good-will gesture to make-up for American Century artist Donny Osmond blowing off an interview, tried to kiss Richie. Richie punched Buck; Buck attacked Richie; Richie bashed in Buck’s skull with a radio award trophy. Richie dumps the body at a construction site or something, and then goes on his own bender the culminates in destroying a tv in his house with a vintage Bo Diddley guitar.
Ok, so later that night, Richie’s sitting in his car. He snorts some cocaine (Cannavale overacts – it happens a lot) and thinks about calling the cops, who visited him earlier to ask about Buck. He blows that off when a bunch of kids run past and over his car on the way to a show. Richie stumbles after them and into a New York Dolls show (that’s him in the middle of the header image) that is so powerful, it literally levels the venue. Richie, apparently, sees the light and decides that American Century needs to overhaul its roster, dumping has-beens (Osmond, Robert Goulet, and Dusty Springfield), sticking with established acts (Grand Funk Railroad, Savoy Brown, and England Dan and John Ford Coley), and signing up-and-comers. He tanks the deal with the Germans, which pisses off his executive staff, who had pretty much already spent the money that they stood to receive, and rants about rock.
After drug abuse, rock rants are his main gig. The rants are all really lame. Here’s an example, delivered during a flashback where Richie and his girlfriend/future wife Devon (Olivia Wilde) are watching a Velvet Underground & Nico concert: “They’re pure and real. Not the least bit concerned with developing a mainstream following.” I love the VU, and, from what I know of their history, Richie’s statement is at best a misapprehension of Lou Reed’s career goals, and at worst a fairy-tale misrepresentation that feeds into the biggest plot driver in the series: The purity of Rock ‘n’ Roll, as heard in the work of its classic artists, some of whom (the VU) appear in flashbacks from Richie’s life , and some of whom (Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly) appear as sort of apparitions or manifestations of Rock’s enduring spirit. Other artists, like Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, and hip-hop pioneer DJ Kool Herc, pass through as merely background. Spencer Kornhaber in a review of the series for the Atlantic called it “a classic-rock Forrest Gump.” That’s not off-base.
So, who else? There’s Devon, a former Andy Warhol muse and a wanna-be avant garde artist. At one point, she sells a Warhol painting of her for money to fund a fringe theater group. She and Richie have a shitty relationship. There’s his drug problem, which flares out of control after he was on the wagon for some period between the VU show in 1967 and Buck’s murder in 1973. They go to therapy, where they learn to take out their frustrations with each other by beating on couch cushions with tennis rackets. She’s marginalized by the writers and directors.
There’s Zak Yankovich (Ray Romano), Richie’s friend and business partner. He’s a henpecked husband and father. At some point, Richie breaks his nose, and he ponders suicide in his car in his garage. He’s less marginalized than female characters, depicted as probably the most sympathetic guy on the show – yeah, a victim (particularly, a victim of women, like his wife and bat-mitzvahing daughter), but a really nice victim. There are other American Century execs, Skip and Scott; there’s a in-house producer guy, Julie Silver (Max Casella, who played Dougie Howser’s bff). There are the office underlings: Clark, an ineffectual, Ivy League educated A&R guy, who’s an asshole and gets his comeuppance for sucking at his job by taking the place of the “sandwich girl,” Jamie Vine (Juno Temple).
Temple is by far the best actor on the show (Romano is a distant next), and Jamie is by far the most interesting character. She’s got angles galore – a disappointment to her European mother (Lena Olin), working in a clerical position, but selling drugs to execs and musicians out of her desk, while trying to snipe talent as it walks in the front door. She does just that with prot0-punk band The Nasty Bits. (The Bits are a writing fallacy – a full-on punk band from England, shopping their wares in the States, circa 1973. The Stooges were around then, but the Ramones weren’t, and the Clash and Sex Pistols didn’t emerge for a few more years.) Jamie meets the band’s singer Kip Steven (James Jagger, Mick’s son) at the reception desk, and tells him that she’ll get his demo tape to the powers that be. Then she ends up naked in bed with Kip. Why? It’s unclear. He’s not attractive; he’s not smart; he’s not talented; he’s not even nice to her. A hook-up in the sexually liberated ’70s? Not really, because it happens again. And she ends up naked again. He’s naked once, but while his is sort of beside the point as he shoots up heroin in the buff and says mean things to her, hers is sexualized.
There’s gender bias all over this show. (Edwards in his episode four review in the Times discusses it.) Jamie is one example. Devon’s another, as the writers and directors decided it’d be cool to have Wilde strip for a photo shoot with an artist she meets through Warhol Factory-era galpal Ingrid. Devon and Ingrid canoodle in flashbacks, but that’s less about women’s lib and more about lesbian chic. In one episode, Richie asks Devon to come to a fondue dinner with American Century artist Hannibal, a caricature mix of Sly Stone and Parliament-Funkadelic’s George Clinton, who just started dating/having sex with Richie’s secretary Cece Matthews (Susan Hayward). Hannibal’s contract is expiring, and Richie wants to use his wife as bait for a new deal. Dinner turns into a night-cap at Richie’s city apartment (his house is in Connecticut, I think), and the dancing between Devon and Hannibal turns from slow to dirty. Richie pulls the plug on the evening, but he’s clearly turned on by watching an African-American musician grind on his wife, so he busts a move in the elevator, then screams at her because she’s “wet.” As in lubricated. Wtf. The dancing scene is tense and decent (Edwards: “Without much dialing, we see a stark tableau, a power struggle with women’s bodies as the battlefield”); the aftermath is bad. Yeah, Devon becomes angry and tells off her husband, saying that she understood her role and wanted to save the company. But the after-aftermath is bullshit. Devon’s nude scene is literally in the next episode. And in a flashback, Richie causes her to miscarry their first child in a car accident in which Ingrid’s paramour Ernst also dies. Whatever.
In episodes five and six, another major female character emerges. Andrea Zito (Annie Parisse) is the person to whom Richie turns to save his company. She’s supposedly a music industry PR wiz, but she’s also his ex-flame pre-Devon. Every female character in this show is subservient to Richie. Let’s review. His wife, whose art career he ruined when he married her and moved her to another state; his new partner, whom he dated before his wife; his secretary, whom he sorta pimps out to one of his artists; and his employee, who’s having sex with another one of his artists to advance her career. And just as that artist is turning a corner, she’s dispatched to fetch pastries.
Aside from the gender bias, there’s race bias. The difference in how that stuff is treated is illuminating, though. The race stuff, as exemplified in a storyline involving Lester Grimes, a blues guitar player, whom Richie signed when he worked for another label in the early ’60 and convinced to record novelty songs (“The Cha-Cha Twist”) under the stage name Little Jimmie Little, is less problematic. Lester gets a raw deal: He never gets to record blues under his own name, and gangsters crush his windpipe when he refuses to record more novelty songs. But he finds a measure of redemption, and revenge against Richie, when he becomes the Nasty Bits’ manager and demands favorable contract terms for them. Devon’s measure of redemption and revenge? Taking off her clothes. Oh, and Cece’s reward for dating Hannibal? Watching him grope a her boss’ wife then leave American Century for a rival label.
Vinyl is reminiscent of Mad Men. Both series cover largely white male-dominated industries at times when minorities and women were treated poorly. To me, Mad Men always seemed to have an editorial take on that culture.Vinyl seems to have an exploitative take. Kornhaber, in his review, explained the difference: “[W]hile Mad Men took seriously the emotional and material tool on women and minorities from demeaning behavior, so far in Vinyl, piggishness is mostly just a punch line.”
Don’t watch this show. It’s much worse than a waste of time. It’s mean and dumb.