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Vinyl - The Complete First Season

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Jun 7, 2016
Vinyl - The Complete First Season

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about "Vinyl: The Complete First Season," now out on Blu-ray, is the way the show integrates real musicians from 1973 into the series' mixed bag of a storyline.

As we learn in the special features for the first season's Blu-ray release, the idea for the show originated with Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones -- someone who was, of course, part of the music scene during the period in question, when (as we also learn in the special features) new genres like punk and hip-hop were erupting from the New York music scene.

Jagger had a movie in mind, and had the ear of Martin Scorsese, but after two decades his idea never made it to the big screen. Instead, it found its way to HBO, and show runner Terence Winter ("Boardwalk Empire"). Presumably, that's when the project took on the general outline of shows Winter was associated with before, including "The Sopranos." In this case, what we have isn't a complex, ruthless antihero who's a mob boss; instead, we have a complex, artistically ambitious record label executive, Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannivale) who pulls back from a company-saving deal with foreign businessmen in order to take one last desperate pass at creating and selling the kind of music he loves.

While his much-abused employees and partners scramble to revitalize the company (it's their hides if they don't!), Richie searches for thrilling new sounds such as those being concocted by a former friend Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh), whom Richie had managed years earlier. There's bad blood between the two, and more bad blood brewing at home when Richie angers his wife Devon (Olivia Wilde) by diving back into drugs and booze. What Devon doesn't know is that Richie's relapse is propelled in part by his unwitting participation in a murder.

It's this last plot point the makes the series feel both over-egged and overly familiar. After "The Sopranos" and "Boardwalk Empire," it might be nice to focus on less homicidal story ideas. After all, the music business is cut throat enough without recourse to actually cutting any throats, and Richie -- who, as Winter notes in an "Inside the Episode" segment, is something of an unreliable narrator -- is erratic enough without adding a killing to his psychological burdens. All the ingredients are already there for a compelling period drama, including characters like Andy Warhol, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Elvis Presley, and the rest of the early '70s New York music and art scene. Why toss a body (and a police detective) into the mix, especially given that business concerns are destined to get Richie into bed with a mobster anyway? Rather than hanging over Richie's head, the killing feels like a narrative anchor.

Similarly trite and draggy is Richie's growing estrangement from Devon, whose passive aggressive stance toward him includes such niceties as photographing the carnage he leaves behind after a booze binge and smash-up of his den. (She artfully arranges the angle at which a guitar protrudes from a trashed TV.) Disintegration is a recurrent motif here, from the sudden collapse of a building (in the middle of a New York Dolls concert raging in the basement!) to Richie ravaging his den and, later, leading the charge to ransack and vandalize his own office.

"Vinyl" has plenty of jittery, head-rushing energy, but there are also skeins of innovation in the show. Illustrating the characters' tensions, conflicts, and internalized dramas are "interstitials," depictions of culturally noteworthy musicians (portrayed by actors) performing their work. It's an inventive and stylish device that doesn't always work, but when it does, it works well.

The casting is unexpected, but exciting. Bobby Cannavale, long relegated to second banana status, deserves a shot at being the leading man, and one itches to see his character grow out of the constraints he's been put in and fulfill his potential. The beautiful and talented Olivia Wilde, similarly, seems like she's working with material that's not making the most of her abilities, and the domestic discord subplot feels threadbare from the outset, perhaps because Richie and Devon's relationship starts unravelling far too early in the season. Flashbacks show how things between them used to be, but this level of martial dissatisfaction and disintegration has to be led up to and earned in real time. (Flashbacks also reveal more about Richie's failings in business and in life.)

As far as the office environment goes, the most interesting character at work is Jamie (Juno Temple), an up-and-coming assistant whose official role is to procure an endless supply of drugs for the staff, but who has her eye -- and ear -- on a job as an A&R representative; she also has an eye (and more than an eye) on a punk band called the Nasty Bits, led by a lost boy out of central casting called Kip (James Jagger). Like Richie, Jamie is driven by a blend of ambition and passion; in a deft little twist, though, when the Nasty Bits start to look like the future of the company, it's not so much Jamie as Lester who unexpectedly benefits.

Then there's Zak (Ray Romano), who, along with Richie, is the label's founding partner. Zak allows himself to be screwed over by Richie numerous times. Zak blames Richie for ruining his family, and while he does have legitimate gripes against the guy you get the sense he could also stand to take a good look at himself. Either that, or go rogue: Anything to give his sad sack character a little loft... and yet, as nuts as their dynamic drives you, you can't help wondering where these two are going to end up. Somehow this feels more compelling than the question of how things will shake out between Richie and Devon.

Season One, like the business its characters hope to dominate, has its hits and misses. It's going to be interesting to see how Season Two plays out: Will the song remain the same? Or will new show runner Scott Z. Burns let the series ignite?


"Vinyl: The Complete First Season"
Blu-ray
$59.99
http://store.hbo.com/original-series/index.php?v=hbo_dvds_original-series&catnvbar=DVDs+&+Blu-ray:Original+Series

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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