Can 'Vinyl' be fixed after such a disappointing first season?
The year's still young, but it's safe to call HBO's Vinyl one of its biggest TV disappointments. Whether you're looking at ratings (where viewership for the initial Sunday night airing keeps coming in at well under 1 million), reviews (my lukewarm initial appraisal was kinder than many), or buzz, the show hasn't remotely been what either viewers or HBO executives might have hoped for from the team-up of Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, and Terence Winter, who was fired as showrunner after this season wrapped. (He'll be replaced by The informant! and Bourne Ultimatum writer Scott Z. Burns, in his first real TV job.)
For HBO to take such an aggressive move with Winter, who created Boardwalk Empire and was David Chase's top lieutenant for virtually all of The Sopranos, speaks both to a tenuous moment for the pay cable giant — which hasn't been able to turn a drama other than Game of Thrones into a big hit for quite a while — and to the show's creative and commercial underperformance. Winter's a great writer ("Long-Term Parking" was one of his), and while he's certainly not blameless in the mess that Vinyl turned out to be, there are so many cooks involved in the show that it's hard to say any one of them spoiled it all, or to hope that replacing him with Burns will be a cure-all.
(Spoilers for Vinyl season 1 as a whole, and the finale in particular, follow.)
Even from the start, Vinyl seemed to be unintentionally mirroring the central dilemma of its coke-snorting main character, record exec Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), struggling to make his dinosaur rock label relevant again in the transformative days of 1973. But where Richie and his colleagues seemed to be turning things around by season's end through their interest in new musical forms like punk and disco, Vinyl itself was never able to transcend its Cable Drama Greatest Hits qualities: the charismatic, self-destructive anti-hero; his frustrated wife (Olivia Wilde, who gave the show's best performance, but appeared sporadically and not at all in the finale); the young woman struggling to get noticed in a male-dominated business (Juno Temple's Jamie); the poorly-disposed corpse, bringing both cops and wiseguys into the action; and the many, many, many Scorsese Classic shots of Richie's nostrils flaring as wide as Madison Square Garden every time he did a line of coke. Time and again, the show wandered into cliches that it didn't even seem to recognize as such, like an episode where Richie spent most of the hour conversing with what everyone in the audience could very quickly identify as a hallucination of a dead man, but that the episode tried to treat as a surprise in the closing minutes.
And despite a committed performance by Cannavale, Richie continually embodied all the worst attributes of his cable predecessors without any of the good ones. Don Draper was a terrible human being, but you understood how talented he was at what he did, and why other characters indulged hs worst excesses. When last week's episode climaxed with Richie's sidekick Zak (Ray Romano, nearly as terrific, and underused, as Wilde) finally losing his patience and laying a beating on Richie, it was a wonder the camera didn't pull back, Airplane!-style, to reveal a line of other characters waiting for their own turn at bat with this jerk.
And yet... there would be moments, up to and including tonight's finale, where Vinyl would roar to life and suggest a thrilling, surprising show featuring these characters in this world. Unsurprisingly, given both the subject matter and the world-class directors who followed Scorsese (including Allen Coulter on the finale), many of those moments involved performance, like would-be punk band the Nasty Bits (led by Kip, played by James Jagger, who's got more than a little of his old man's on-stage swagger) changing songs in mid-set, or musician-turned-manager Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh) giving the Nasty Bits a lesson on the history of the EAB chord progression. The finale had a couple of show-stopping numbers, first with the camera swooping in, around, and upside down a dance club whose patrons were boogieing to an early disco song; then with the Nasty Bits' debut performance ending with the band being arrested for public obscenity (thanks to an anonymous police tip from the publicity-minded Richie), but not before Kip wrestles the microphone away from the cops long enough to deliver one last F-bomb to the adoring crowd.
In those moments, or when Wilde's Devon was off on her own, struggling to reconnect to her own artistic roots after years as a suburban mom, Vinyl showed real promise. The finale saw Richie not only sober, but ahead of the game for once, putting the label on better footing and finding a way to string along the feds expecting him to rat on his wiseguy partner. (If Burns decides to treat that subplot as closed when season 2 begins, I doubt anyone would object.)
On the other hand, there are certain devices the show will likely always struggle with, particularly when it comes to integrating real bands – or even real genres of music — in with these fictional characters. Over the course of the season's final episodes, for instance, demoted A&R man Clark (Jack Quaid) more or less discovered and popularized disco on his own, and the show always seems to grind to a halt when the American Century execs are discussing real bands, whether their assessments are right (they're dazzled by an early listen to Freddie Mercury's voice) or wrong (one of their associates dismisses Hall & Oates as not worth his time). Earlier episodes saw Richie get attacked by Elvis Presley (on Colonel Tom Parker's orders), Clark spend a humiliating day with Alice Cooper, and Devon take a photograph of John Lennon at a local club. Every now and then, one of those intersections of fact and fiction work — John Cameron Mitchell made a great Andy Warhol, whose relationship with Devon was thought through enough that it didn't just feel like a gimmick cameo — but on the whole, they've been much less seamless than when Winter had his invented Boardwalk wiseguys cross paths with historical ones like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano.
Mainly, though, there's the problem of how much livelier and more interesting Vinyl gets whenever Richie's not around to yell at people. His redemption arc drove nearly everything that happened this season, yet scenes where he was absent and the focus shifted to Devon or Lester or Zak or Jamie were almost always more compelling. The sober, relatively low-key version of Richie from the finale was a promising shift in the right direction, but has he left too bad an impression on much of the Vinyl audience to seem worth the bother in a second season?
The Richie problem is emblematic of Vinyl as a whole. Even if Burns magically fixes every flaw — which doesn't usually happen when outside people are brought in to rescue a sagging show (see also Smash season 2) — the "It's much better now!" critical narrative almost never brings back viewers who left during the bad old days, much less brings in people who were reluctant to sample to begin with. HBO invested so much in this show — and has so little in the drama pipeline at the moment, with Leftovers ending, True Detective in limbo, and Westworld delayed by creative difficulties — that they have to give it a shot to right itself. (Plus, in many cases, expensive new cable dramas essentially get a two-season order before they debut, with the "renewal" announcement being made for PR purposes.)
At the end of the finale, Richie holds a party to launch American Century's sub-label, Alibi Records, and invites all the party guests to cover his office walls with graffiti — the more profane, the better — as a way to symbolize the way the company has transformed how it does business. But spray paint on the walls is only cosmetic. Both American Century and Vinyl still need a lot of work, and may never be able to escape their old reputations.
What did everybody else think? If you stuck it to the end of the season, did you feel the show improved? What worked and what didn't? And whether you watched til the end or walked away earlier, will you come back for season 2?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com