by Emily Dodi
There is a scene in HBO’s Vinyl in which a record company executive (Max Casella) tells a clueless A&R rep that inside every man is another version of himself — a doppelgänger who might have different hair and a deep primordial urge. The same can be said of the series itself. On the outside it looks and sounds good enough, but hidden within it is something that could be great. Big hair and primordial urge, a plus.
Vinyl is set in the New York music scene of the 1970s and centers on Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), a record executive who is desperate to save his crumbling label, American Century Records. Somewhere along the way, Richie and his partners went from being hitmakers to the laughing-stocks of the industry, with the nickname American Cemetery because it’s “where artists go to die.” Richie believes it’s because they started caring more about money than music.
In the pilot, Richie is about to sell American Century to a German company when he has an epiphany. After a wild night in which he is involved in a murder, falls off the wagon, sees a ghost from his past and survives a building collapse, he decides not to sell. What clinches his change of heart, however, is seeing a band in a dive club that literally rocks his world. Suddenly, Richie remembers how music is supposed to make him feel. He returns to work with all the vigor and passion of a man on a mission. (All that cocaine he snorts might have something to do with it, too.) His directive to his A&R reps: bring in new artists who play music that makes you want to “dance, fuck or fight” or you’re fired. Cue the deer in the head-lights, except for Jamie (Juno Temple), a young secretary who knows exactly what Richie means. She brings him Naughty Bits, a punk band headed by a sullen yet charismatic lead singer (James Jagger) that’s destined for greatness. That is, if they don’t self-destruct first.
Nostalgia for the music and passion of the past doesn’t just fuel Richie, it fuels the show. Visions of artists like Janis Joplin, Bo Diddley and Little Richard — portrayed by actors with varying lip-syncing skills — appear frequently to remind Richie what he is after. For the most part, the people around Richie don’t understand him. His partners, including Ray Romano as Zak, are mostly out for the money. Richie’s wife, Devon (Olivia Wilde), is supportive to a point, until she begins to dig up her own demons. One person who understands what he is longing for is Andrea (Annie Parisse), Richie’s former secretary and lover, who he thinks can help turn his company around. Then there is Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh), a blues singer from Richie’s early days, who sees the future of music, including the shimmer of hip-hop on the horizon.
Richie’s drive and desire are what make Vinyl a very good show. What keep it from being a great show are the subplots of murder and the mob. The series doesn’t need them. Vinyl has a man searching for what makes him feel alive while his life falls apart. It has New York in the 1970s and the culture and music that still reverberate today. Most of all, it has Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese as executive producers. (Scorsese also directs the pilot.) The two legends helped make the 1970s — and every moment after — what they are. Seriously, if Vinyl captures just a hint of what Jagger must have done in the 1970s it will be enough to melt your screen. Why dilute the series with diversions? Give it to us straight — and let the doppelgänger out if you want us to feel anything real.
Vinyl airs Saturday nights at 7 p.m. on HBO.
Out of the Box is a biweekly column by VCReporter staff and contributors about television and streaming content.