Feb 15, 2016

TV Recap: Vinyl - "Pilot"

Scene from Vinyl
Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
If the first 10 minutes of HBO's latest drama Vinyl seems familiar, you're not hallucinating. Following a scene in which music executive Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) scores drugs and attends a concert by The New York Dolls, the film breaks into stylish narration, fancy editing, and an embarrassing amount of excess. You've seen this formula before. Not just in the "apt but not justified" Mad Men comparisons, but from the team behind the scenes. Vinyl is from the team that brought you the heavily divisive film The Wolf of Wall Street two years ago, and whose pedigree has been harping on this for decades. Martin Scorsese's direction feels on par with his GoodFellas days, while Terence Winter's profane dialogue was part of what made The Sopranos such an insatiable hit. Returning to TV together for the first time since Boardwalk Empire, they are now hellbent on taking on the 70's, and providing something just as crazy as Jordan Belfort and Nucky Thompson's lifestyles.
Following the disastrous failure to not sign Led Zeppelin, Richie is in serious need of signing the next big hit. While he is often seen coked out of his mind in concerts, he is also just as passionate about finding the hit. The answer comes when his secretary discovers a punk outfit named The Dirty Bits. The first episode, clocking it an unnecessarily long two hours, is all about the existential crisis of running a label with no big names. Should Richie sell it, or just ride it out and hope for an eventual return to his glory days that were the 60's? Along with parallel stories regarding various music artists (both fictional and real), the show definitely feels the part of being a different side of the music business scene. However, it's also a tad familiar if you know the first thing about Scorsese or Winter.
It would be easy to make comparisons between Vinyl and the recently deceased Mad Men. Both are essentially about suited dudes making money off of other people's work. However, the more apt comparison would be within the HBO brand itself. I'm specifically referencing The Sopranos, which in the late 90's premiered with a firey vengeance and redefined what cable dramas could be. It was profane, violent, and even occasionally sexual. It was about a man with a questionable career and his quest to balance it with family. While there's strands that can be seen from Mad Men, it makes for a more direct parallel to The Sopranos solely because of the mafia mentality that some music executives have where they beat their talent with baseball bats solely to get them to record the music they want. In Vinyl, the moment is a sudden image that packs a (no pun intended) punch. Add in some drug-fueled marketing talk while shooting a TV playing Frankenstein, and you get this strange underbelly of the rock music you love.
There isn't anything wrong with this show following a familiar formula. Most writers and directors never change their style and end up with reputable careers. In fact, there's a lot to like about Vinyl's premiere. Cannavale immediately embraces the charisma and brings out the best in Winter's dialogue. The shooting of the various music performances are all time appropriate and enjoyable (even if some cases feel more like karaoke than genuine imitation). The world is fun to experience, and the episode wastes no time covering the bases for what it plans to do. 
The only issue really is that it's a two hour episode with a dizzying pace that packs too much in.  Of course, that's the benefit of being as successful to the HBO brand as Scorsese and Winter are. You get to take longer to get to the point. However, there are entire scenes that feel too long and by the time that the episode circles back to the opening scene's crumbling nightclub, you have almost forgotten what Richie was doing there in the first place. While it technically happened, the ending is still a little too surreal and weird for an episode closer - coming across more as a goofy event in this tragic man's life. While it has high ambitions, one could only wish that they would focus more and just have made this one episode into two, if just to give the audience time to digest the imagery.
With that said, Vinyl is probably going to be pretty good once it finds its niche. For starters, it isn't a novelty version of 1973. It is an unrepentant party with drugs, sex, and (yes) rock and roll. Everything about the episode already feels assured for the talents going forward, especially in the effective yet excessive music performance department. Maybe the show will get better once it is allowed to run at a normal 60 minutes. Maybe the comparisons to Mad Men will make more sense. However, there's still little to connect the two beyond the familiar period piece boardrooms. Even then, it's fun to hear Winter and Scorsese make fun of 70's music without it seeming cheesy. It may not be a sustainable aspect of the show, but it definitely gives me hope that something good is on the horizon.

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