by ALEX CARNEVALE
creators Mick Jagger, Terence Winter, Rich Cohen & Martin Scorsese
The massive list of producers on Vinyl reads like a bad joke: a Brit, a Jew, an Italian and an Irishman walk into a bar... A lot of people were involved in making Vinyl, probably hundreds, many of them very talented. The two-hour pilot alone cost $18 million. There is a person of every possible race and ethnicity in HBO's Vinyl, except Asian. (Didn't you know there were no Asians in New York in the 1970s, at least none involved in the music industry in any significant way?)
Let's talk about the music, since Vinyl plays a lot of songs. Figure that the people behind this show don't sit around watching tons of television to know that half the stuff they play has been in every generic movie released in the last fifty years. The music alternates between wonderful and terrible, but the worst part of the aural situation is this: no one seems to care very much how is it made. We never see anyone writing songs or tuning instruments.
Instead of focusing on creative individuals, Vinyl concerns itself with Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale). When he is lucid, which is not often, Richie occasionally (this is rare) might say something semi-intelligent. In Vinyl, we live for these moments, since witnessing him destroy himself with cocaine and alcohol, and hurting the feelings of all New York's not-Asians is pretty hard to watch after awhile.
Richie is Italian, and he relied on his former secretary Andrea Zito (Annie Parisse) in so many ways. They slept together when he told his wife Devon (Olivia Wilde) that he would be working late. He kept a white woman at home and an Italian woman in the city in a reverse-Tony Soprano situation. This ethnic switcheroo is never explicitly explained, and I sometimes think it must be like watching aliens from space for people in other places to view Vinyl. Then again no one watches the show anyway so does it really matter?
Despite the fact that Richie is a complete asshole to everyone except his kids and his employee Jamie Vine (Juno Temple), he has to murder a guy in self-defense and he spends most of Vinyl's episodes whining and crying about this. The man he killed to protect himself was a dirtbag who owned some radio stations. The guy had no wife, no children, and no one who cared if he lived or died outside of the prostitutes who depended on him for their living. His company and family are falling apart, and all Richie Finestra can think about is this piece of shit.
It makes no sense whatsoever, but then maybe treating Vinyl as an actual series with characters who might have positive and negative qualities is giving it too much credit. It is more about an overwhelming sense of style which never coheres or agrees upon itself, and so becomes ugly. This period in American life was a great deal more disgusting than either the 1920s or the 1990s, the focus of Terence Winter's previous series. The colors all clash, the outfits are ghastly, and there was no antibacterial solution in all of New York.
Winter's writing has always been among the very best on television, and he has a few artistic crutches which make it into everything he works on. He loves showing people by themselves, following them even after the scene he is writing would traditionally end. He focuses so intently on every moment having something at stake that he makes anything he constructs into a thriller of sorts. This works a lot better in noir, because people can live or die based on events. On Vinyl it just means we have to care about who gets a record deal.
When Finestra first meets his wife, he has sex with her in the bathroom of the Factory. He puts his hand around Devon's neck to choke her a bit. She slaps him but seems to enjoy his sense of play. I hate to say it, but Olivia Wilde is about as plausible in this role as it was when Whoopi Goldberg put on a nun's habit.
But even if she did seem like the kind of person who would be a Connecticut housewife, the sheer number of fakes on Vinyl makes the entire show seem a comedy sketch. I guess using actual footage of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop would have completely changed what they were going for, but no one wants to watch actors play these people and lip synch their songs. There is a reason Milli Vanilli did not have a lasting career in the business.
This is essentially the conundrum: making Vinyl fun would make these people seem like heroes glorifying excess and theft from the musicians. Without those guitarists and vocalists, there would be no great sums of money to pay for the ample suppy of cocaine, heroin, and prescription drugs. So instead Vinyl is utterly depressing to watch and be a part of; every single person on the show is permanently unhappy and completely ashamed of their lives, which is not only terrible to witness, but not really realistic when you think about it.
Worse than being immersed in the darkness of these pagans, however, is the fact that Vinyl is completely out of date. Period pieces needs to comment on contemporary times, but Vinyl has nothing to say about who we are now, since whatever authenticity was present in this period evaporates by reconstructing it. The only possible conclusion is that the 1970s was as fake as the modern concept of celebrity, which is not really something we need told to us by an expensive television program.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
"You're Gonna Get Love" - Keren Ann (mp3)