Critic's Notebook: Can HBO's 'Vinyl' Be Saved?

Vinyl Still 3 - H 2016
Courtesy of HBO

Vinyl Still 3 - H 2016

When HBO, in the ballroom at the Television Critics Association press tour, first gave critics an extended look at the future — dazzling, specially cut previews of both Vinyl and Westworld — I thought, despite my own perpetual cautioning about trailers, that the channel was going to hit both out of the park. They looked that good: absolute 100 percent buy-in, eager to see more.

Well, production on Westworld hit a rock and tonight is the season finale of Vinyl, a series that not only failed to ignite much of an audience (though HBO has already predictably renewed it for a second season), but also got a ton of snarky kickback on Twitter and, despite mostly positive reviews (a 71 rating on Metacritic), eventually generated some regret among critics who liked it in the first place — including me.

Although The Wall Street Journal, The San Francisco Chronicle, New York magazine, the Washington Post, USA Today and the AV Club all theoretically liked it better than I did, according to Metacritic, we were all essentially in. I was very much in — despite numerous caveats in my review. I wanted Vinyl to work because, as both a former music critic and a passionate lover of music, I wanted a show that got into the guts of what that kind of passion feels like.

For Vinyl, set in New York in 1973, that feeling was — as stated repeatedly and with a kind of screamed exclamation point by main character Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) — “rock and roll!” It was that kick to your head and heart that makes you love it and believe in it. And yep, I wanted to love and believe in Vinyl if the people behind it absolutely understood that passion — a sense of what "rock and roll" truly was. And they had constructed a series set at the nexus of vast musical change, where rock and roll was evolving not only with The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and David Bowie, but also embracing glam rock, punk rock, disco and hip hop. As a series, it had lots of fertile ground to cover.

Writer, co-creator and showrunner Terence Winter seemed to be tapping into that vibe, even if fellow co-creators Mick Jagger (whose son James has a recurring role in the series) and Martin Scorsese (who directed the two-hour premiere like a baroque feature film) were getting all the early credit. I thought Winter or this vast cabal of people who had tons of rock and roll stories to draw on, as well as tons of hands-on experience of both the era and New York City’s place in it, were going to get it right.

Here’s what I wrote in my initial review that best summed up my thoughts on the first four episodes: "If you love music, then there’s something majestic about the passionate and perhaps impossible search that writer and showrunner Terence Winter goes on in the new HBO series Vinyl, trying to find the euphoric electrical cord that runs through great rock 'n' roll — from the searing guitar to the pounding drum and the propulsive bass — and ends up in your head. The series posits, rightly, that you know it when you hear it, even if over time, you've been fooled by the sound of something that may imitate greatness but not quite get there."

Ah, yes, that. In the review I was setting up Richie's story — successful record label owner about to sell his dream to some German conglomerate because the label had become bloated and unfocused and wasn't getting it done anymore. Richie's revelation — as depicted epically by Scorsese — comes one night while hearing the New York Dolls on a cocaine and booze bender. It's an epiphany that makes him want to save the company and get back to his (and its) roots.

But the part where I wrote about "being fooled by the sound of something that may imitate greatness but not quite get there" ultimately ended up pertaining to Vinyl itself.

I’m not sure how many of the critics who liked the show initially bailed entirely or regret being so positive — it’s the nature of serialized television that shows get either worse or better as they go, particularly in the inaugural season. And it’s pointless to either feel duped or out on an island given how easy it is for others with dubious critical track records to point fingers.

But oh, I felt let down as Vinyl went on. The show I hoped it would be — about a relentless pursuit of a great song or band or singer and what that meant to a label or an A&R person and then, through the album or the radio, what it meant to listeners — never really took off.

Vinyl sunk into all the parts I disliked. The things I worried about did not go away.

And so, here we are, on the night of the first season finale, with a question: Can this show be saved?

HBO already tossed Winter overboard, saying in a statement: "As we head into the second season of Vinyl, we have decided it is an appropriate time to make a change in the creative direction of the show."

I have serious doubts that can happen. For starters, even though Winter is taking the fall here, there are nine executive producers, two co-executive producers and four producers. There's a word for having 15 producers and that word is "insane." Good luck finding a new creative direction much less agreeing on even one of the many changes the show needs to make to pull out of its creative tailspin.

Yes, I believe there's something there — but like rock and roll itself, you can only find it if you strip back all the layers. If Vinyl wants to be about the shot to the heart that is rock and roll, it needs to stop having storylines that are essentially rambling prog-rock nonsense.

For starters, there was absolutely no need for a show about rock and roll to have a murder in it. Yes, I get what they were trying to do and it's still stupid. This isn't a cop show. Or shouldn't be. Unfortunately, even though it looks like the writers can cut loose this asinine albatross that's currently around their neck, they've got to slice and dice it very quickly. Hell, pretend it didn't happen — no fans will care.

Beyond that bit of lunacy, the problems with Vinyl started in the Scorsese "pilot" — really a two-hour movie — and whatever can be undone should be. Specifically, while there may have been a ton of cocaine in 1973 and Richie was an addict who returned to it — because of that stupid murder — the first season of Vinyl had too much Bobby Cannavale arching his head back and having his eyes bulge out, less like he snorted coke and more like he stuck a wet hand into the back of a guitar amp.

Be done with that.

The snorting head-snap became a real hindrance to Cannavale's performance. Hell, in the first three hours he deserved an Emmy nomination for making the coke-fueled rock and roll epiphany-and-outrage thing work to perfection. I could watch those scenes on a loop. But making Richie stay that way for a full season turned him into a caricature and diminished what Cannavale was able to create so passionately in those early episodes. Worse, and this should be pinned up in the writer's room: Nobody likes an addict. No matter how much you want to romanticize him or her, an addict is an unlikable screw-up who ruins other peoples lives. Over and over again. If you do that with your main character for 10 hours, you've lost the rooting interest.

Re-establishing Cannavale's character is essential to the survival of Vinyl. He doesn't have to be high to be passionate about good music. He's got a great ear (yes, sure, probably too great to be believed — but it's a television series, not a documentary about an A&R guy who signed five great artists out of 97 in a 10-year career; that would be boring).

Getting him off the cocaine is essential. Let him drink and smoke if need be, but the blow is now a repeated blow to the head.

Vinyl can be saved if it sticks to the music and remembers, in times of doubt, to stick to the music. Perhaps a Post-It note? Like this: "It's about the music."

Of course, Vinyl has other issues in that its expanded world includes Richie's wife, Devon (Olivia Wilde), and their children. Devon clearly needed something to do besides being a bored housewife, and her pursuits downtown were interesting enough in that they didn't involve Richie doing coke off his hand. But that story needs to be more interesting. Using more of Birgitte Sorenson as Devon's friend, Ingrid, is a good idea because she's great and the actresses work well together.

Please don't ever do a flashback/dream sequence/fugue state episode ever again — episode six was a real embarrassment.

Vinyl also needs a whole lot more of Annie Parisse as former secretary turned badass A&R person Andrea Zito, because Parisse essentially stole Vinyl the moment she appeared. She's great. She needs more work. And yes, since it's a period piece set in 1972, when women were treated like sex objects and gofers, Vinyl really needs a woman who is on the same level as all the dumbass men. Vinyl needs Parisse as Zito butting heads with Richie and everybody else inside American Century Records right away — and in a sustained fashion. Yes, Juno Temple's Jamie character gave some hope to the sad females until Parisse arrived and shored up that part, but I'm also worried that Temple will be used for naked eye candy and her Jamie will keep having threesomes or fall in love and not be able to sign another band to reiterate she's got good taste and foresees the future.

One of the great things Vinyl has done — and should continue doing — is building out Ray Romano's Zak character, who grounded the series and gave it some soul. Zak is one of the few likable characters left at American Century. I'm not sure if the intent of Vinyl was to make all the male characters seem expendable — or if the actors (particularly Max Casella as Julius) did too good a job honing in on their Cro-Mag sensibilities (a la Mad Men, but with less nuance), but they all need to start seeing the future a little more clearly because sexist A&R guys stuck in the past do not make you want to tune in and root for their poor taste. Take away Richie's cocaine habit and, yes, you want him to find the next big thing (with talent). And it was a fine and overdue storyline to have Zak actually sign someone who has talent and can break out if "packaged" right.

But at the current storytelling pace, I wouldn't mind if Andrea and Jamie took the guns off the resident mobsters and mowed down the rest of the male cast.  

Can Vinyl be saved? Yes, but you need to swing a big hammer and get busy.

From these shards a show can still be built — get rid of the cocaine habit; get rid of the mobster and murder storyline; dump the musical interludes that Scorsese favored in the pilot but which ended up going nowhere the rest of the episodes. Tighten up. And oh, here's a Post-It note. Shall we read it? It says, "It's about the music."

So, yeah, stick to the music.

Now, the music obsessive in me wants Vinyl to work. It wants these changes to be made. But that passionate part is also mixing with the TV critic part and coming up with "Unlikely."

Why? Because someone — either Scorsese or Winter or Jagger or one of the other 76 producers – is flat-out too enamored, musically, with the 1950s and early 1960s. For me, this is "the tell" that's going to hold back Vinyl. You can play all the Bowie you want on this show, or flash a Big Star record, or make the punk guy fess up that Mott the Hoople's "Rock and Roll Queen" is pretty great for establishment codgers, or talk about Hendrix and Springsteen and even play Patti Smith's demo tape, but at its heart Vinyl loves Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly way more. It's in the DNA. Which is fine — people love what they love and some people can't escape their generational constraints. But Vinyl needs to stop winking at the future and make us believe that Richie could actually like the fictionalized punk band The Nasty Bits.

That's hard to do when the storyline in Vinyl has them basically covering an old blues song and throwing some F-bombs on top of it. Whether or not The Nasty Bits (fronted by James Jagger) is supposed to be the band Television or just a neon sign about the coming of punk rock, the song they record in the series is inherently a wedding song, not a punk song, and that's the DNA problem that I still have with Vinyl.

Going forward — and even if they muck up the finale, which I'm guessing they will — I'd like Vinyl to tap into the pulse of the change that was both on the radio in 1973 and coming right around the corner. Again, stick to the music.

I can hope, at least. I want a Game of Thrones about the music industry and music acts.

If that reminds HBO that the channel is in desperate need for a new drama to work, well, good. Get back in the studio and make it happen.