Why “Vinyl” Is a Muddled Mess

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I was going to devote my third column for the CFR to the ongoing presidential campaign, this time focusing on the most recent Republican contretemps — the Ted Cruz adultery scandal, Donald Trump’s abortion remarks, etc. But maybe it’s because spring is unfolding and the forsythias are in full bloom in my backyard or that I just started a new job that involves commuting (which I haven’t done in six years), but, alas, I don’t have the wherewithal and strong stomach to discuss anything Trump and/or Cruz-related right now. We all know and see every day that, just when you thought it was impossible for the two leading Republican candidates not to exponentially out-sleaze one another, something happens that makes you think: yes, they can (apologies to President Obama’s 2008 campaign mantra). So to contain my nausea, I’m going to pause on ruminating about the campaign and talk about the new TV series Vinyl, which focuses on the music industry in New York City in the 1970s.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Pick a genre and stick to it[/pullquote]The brainchild of two legends in their respective fields — Mick Jagger (music) and Martin Scorsese (film), who directed the pilot episode — Vinyl has all the earmarks of a surefire hit. The cast, as led by the uber-talented Bobby Cannavale as massively troubled record company owner Richie Finestra, and feline-eyed Olivia Wilde as his wife, Devon, a former Andy Warhol Factory girl languishing in bored suburban misery, is uniformly excellent. Terence Winter, who racked up several Emmys for his work as a producer and writer on The Sopranos and the creator of Boardwalk Empire, was a writer for Vinyl and its co-executive producer — until Friday, when he was let go “over creative differences.”

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Perhaps this is why Vinyl, despite boasting so much prodigious talent, doesn’t entirely work. I’ve pondered this question since the series debuted and since the dust settled in the wake of the show’s eighth episode, “E.A.B.,” (number nine, “Rock and Roll Queen,” airs today), I can finally offer this cogent response: the showrunners have (had?) absolutely no idea of what Vinyl is supposed to be. Farewell, Winter.

But still: is it an office drama? A dark comedy/satire? A crime/suspense story? A historical showpiece? The writing is such a muddled mess, who knows? Pick a genre and stick to it!

Historical inaccuracies and anachronisms riddle the series. I know cocaine was the drug du jour in Manhattan in the mid to late ’70s but did people really hoover it nonstop the way Richie does as early as 1973? To paraphrase an old Woody Allen line from Hannah and Her Sisters, he should have worn a gold shovel around his neck. Didn’t cocaine use in New York City (and the music industry) become rampant with the rise of disco? It’s only a year off or so but still…

And isn’t 1973 a tad early for the burgeoning New York City punk rock scene? The seminal band The Ramones formed in 1974 and released their debut album two years later. Led by them and other punk acts, like Television and Patti Smith, that musical genre in Gotham really didn’t emerge as a force to be reckoned with at downtown music venues like CBGB until slightly later on. I’m nitpicking but you get the point.

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The Nasty Bits, the early-punk band Richie signs to his American Century Records, look disarmingly too contemporary, as if they’ve been plopped, H.G. Wells’ Time Machine-style, from a current club in New York City, London or anywhere in Europe, into Vinyl. There’s nothing distinctly ’70s-ish about them, either in appearance or music. When they perform, I half expect Kip Stevens (James Jagger), the snarling lead singer of the band, to take out his iPhone and shoot a selfie.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Okay, we get it.[/pullquote]The show’s celebrity impersonations, which run the gamut from surprisingly well-done (Alice Cooper) to groan-inducing (Robert Plant), are distracting. The portrayal of David Bowie (Noah Bean) in his Ziggy Stardust days was especially eerie in light of the music icon’s recent death. However, the recent Elvis celebrity impersonation — played by seasoned Elvis impersonator Shawn Klush — was actually poignant and multi-nuanced. That touching, well-written scene between Elvis in his later Vegas phase and Richie, has been the highlight of Vinyl‘s decidedly mixed season. (Elvis experts have noted three glaring inaccuracies in that scene: Elvis would have never been alone, as someone from his Memphis Mafia entourage would have been with him; Elvis in 1973 still looked and sounded good — he became the infamous bloated wreck later on; and Colonel Tom Parker always negotiated for Elvis as the latter never would have done it himself with a record company executive.)

The celebrity impersonations preceding that Elvis scene in the same episode — Gram Parsons (pathetic), Stephen Stills (awful), Mama Cass Elliot (didn’t even look like her — she looked more like Carnie Wilson) — and the mute cameos (David Crosby, Micky Dolenz) veered into cheesy overkill. And the fact that most of the celebrities, save Parsons and Elliot, are still very much alive only underscores the silliness of this recurring conceit. The most recent episode — depicting Devon charming John Lennon into letting her take a photo of him with his Yoko-sanctioned mistress, May Pang, at Max’s Kansas City while watching Bob Marley and the Wailers perform a set — was idiotically contrived and an affront to the memory of the ex-Beatle.

Spoiler alert: then there’s the murder of radio station owner Frank “Buck” Rogers (a brilliant Andrew Dice Clay), which we saw Richie and an associate commit in the pilot episode. Just in case we forget this, viewers are subjected in almost every episode to Richie experiencing flashbacks of bludgeoning Rogers. Okay, we get it. He’s haunted by his crime, which actually seemed like self-defense (given that Rogers attacked him first). Richie even resorts to asking his estranged jazz musician father (David Proval) to provide an alibi for him as NYPD detectives, hot on his trail, wiretap his office, seeking the incriminating evidence that will help them arrest the self-destructive music mogul.

This subplot has become such an albatross to the story, which is already complicated and fraught with a million subplots and secondary characters, that it literally cuts off the show’s oxygen supply every time Richie has yet another flashback of killing Rogers. I’m surprised I’m not having that flashback myself.

Not to mention, Richie is so unrootable as a main character that he makes other notorious anti-hero lead characters from series past, notably Tony Soprano, look like something out of Sesame Street. Seriously, a crane falling from a skyscraper pulverizing Richie to death would make me applaud at this point. Hm, there’s a thought: kill off Richie and let PR ace Andrea Zito (a feisty Annie Parisse), and harried, over-leveraged promotion head Zak (a terrific Ray Romano) succeed him and salvage what’s left of the beleaguered label. I like it.

But until then, we are left with a show trying way too hard to push the envelope and be hip watercooler conversation the way The Sopranos was. Vinyl‘s overweening ambition is as obvious as the mutton sideburns and polyester suits that populate it. Maybe that’s why I am counting down to the Apr. 17 finale and the Apr. 24 premiere of a show that does work: Game of Thrones. Because unlike Vinyl, Game of Thrones knows what it’s supposed to be — fantasy — and what it isn’t.

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Iris Dorbian
Iris Dorbian is a business and arts journalist whose articles have appeared in a wide number of outlets that include the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Venture Capital Journal, DMNews, Playbill, Backstage, Theatermania, Live Design, Media Industry Newsletter and PR News. From 1999 to 2007, Iris was the editor-in-chief of Stage Directions. She is the author of Great Producers: Visionaries of the American Theater, which was published by Allworth Press in August 2008 and An Epiphany in Lilacs, which will be published by Mazo Publishers in 2017. Her personal essays have been published in Blue Lyra Review, B O D Y, Embodied Effigies, Diverse Voices Quarterly and Gothesque Magazine.