Directed by Martin Scorsese, the pilot for Vinyl suggests one of the filmmaker’s crime epics if it were to be tamed to fit the confines of episodic television, a medium that guides characters through various points in their lives, dropping them off at preordained stops so as to prep the subsequent episode. In this case, it’s a constraining context for Scorsese’s invention. Nothing quite feels “right” in Vinyl. The characters never break out on their own, confined as they are to the narrative, serving as copies of copies of other characters, both from Scorsese’s own cinema and from other TV shows. The period décor, of early-1970s New York, lacks the lived-in texture of Scorsese’s films, favoring the topical broadness of other HBO productions such as Show Me a Hero, which rarely allow one to forget the contributions of the costume and set people. The soundtrack is astonishingly varied, serving as a veritable History of Rock n’ Roll course, but also over-compensatory, often desperately trying to whip us up into a fervor, whether or not the scene in question requires it.
Verisimilitude is key to Scorsese’s crime comedies—the very thing that separates the director’s work from that of his many imitators, informing the films’ expressive excess with heightened realism that indicates both social and emotional awareness (normally of toxic masculine insecurity), while intensifying the impression of chaos. In Vinyl, many significant characters are coked-up men of power in perpetual frenzy, obsessed with their virility and the gender and ethnicity of everyone else in the room. (If a mixture of Jews, Italians, and African-Americans are occupying a setting together, you can reasonably bet the scene pivots on racial epithets.) But their behavior scans as obligatory and unconvincing, as gestures belonging to the televisual equivalent of a cover jam.
Which is to say that, in Scorsese’s films, this macho overkill generally has a point, particularly in The Wolf of Wall Street, an amazing comedy that painted America as being under siege by petty frat-house tyrants, while inviting us to enjoy the apocalypse. But in Vinyl, one’s primed to wonder: When is Scorsese going to tire of this? How many cocaine binges does this great filmmaker have in him to stage? The show’s pilot purposefully suggests the last 45 minutes of Goodfellas, directly quoting its imagery, following Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), the founder of American Century, a record company on the verge of selling out to the German conglomerate Polygram so as to avoid going under. Richie occasionally speaks to us, like all the protagonists of Scorsese’s coke epics do, telling us how he was once in danger of snorting his success up his nose. Then he’s pulled into a shit storm that knocks him off the wagon.
Vinyl is exactly what one pictures when they roll the words “Martin Scorsese,” “cocaine,” “gangsters,” “Italians,” “rock n’ roll,” “money,” and “sex” around in their mind. The only thing missing is a religious quandary, which has lent grandeur to Scorsese’s obsession with vice in the past. This territory is so well-worn that a student of Scorsese’s films can even anticipate certain camera angles ahead of their arrival. One waits for the moment when Richie snorts up again, the camera pulling away from a close-up on his face and shooting up toward the ceiling so as to telegraph his high. And this series is in love with character entrances, which involve a certain kind of shot in which a badass character walks down a hallway as a badass musical cue announces his (and the filmmaker’s) said badass-ery with predictable aplomb.
Scorsese is a famously exacting director. Interviews with various collaborators have claimed that he spends over a year in the editing room with his films, honing their biorhythms. And this painstaking devotion often shows in an exhilaratingly musical way, the images bleeding into one another with a sense of raw, propulsive, intuitive anger that suggests the cinematic equivalent of, yes, rock n’ roll. The problem with the Vinyl pilot is that it feels impersonally professional, despite the material’s reported closeness to the director, a musical maven, who co-created the series with Mick Jagger, obviously as far inside the 1970s rock scene as anyone could hope to be, and Rich Cohen and Terence Winter, the latter of whom adapted The Wolf of Wall Street for the screen and served as a pivotal collaborator on The Sopranos.
What these titans have come up with is basically just another perfunctory soap opera with good actors and lush production values. But the material isn’t strong enough to hold up under even a watered-down version of Scorsese’s over-the-top formalism, which lacks the precision of his greatest films. Few shots are original, and there’s an unseemly try-too-hard vibe to all the upside-down angles and fancy camera pirouettes. Every scene is so loud and terrified of nuance. The constant profanity, bursts of music, and instances of characters breaking objects or throwing things at one another quickly lead to a sort of jumbled, frenetic oblivion.
Vinyl calms down in subsequent episodes, where directors like Allen Coulter and Mark Romanek decrease the Scorsese-esque bombast, settling the series into a facsimile of Mad Men, only with different period artifacts namechecked. Richie is the Don Draper character, a tormented self-made creative with daddy issues, who markets artists because he’s not sure if he’s an artist himself. Richie’s wife, Devon (Olivia Wilde), like Betty Draper, is a beautiful woman from a chic universe (in this case, Andy Warhol’s Factory), who’s alienated from her husband and his fixations on drugs and work.
The politics defining American Century are unerringly similar to those governing the various incarnations of Sterling Cooper. The women working supporting positions in the front of the office are shown to be valuable carriers of information, reliably taken for granted by their sexist bosses, who cavort in the back of the office, trying to net and maintain talent. The Lucky Strike of American Century, i.e. the white whale act they really need, is Hannibal (Daniel J. Watts), a funk master who suspects that he’s being ghettoized by Richie solely as an R&B artist. Vinyl even has a Peggy: Jamie Vine (Juno Temple), a “sandwich girl” attempting to break into American Century’s A&R department on the strength of her connection to a new act, the Nasty Bits, which embodies the rise of British punk in the early ’70s.
It can be reasonably argued that some overlap between Mad Men and Vinyl is inevitable, as gender politics in the American work places of the 1960s and 1970s are unavoidably similar. But both shows’ approach to the subject matter is also, at many junctures, nearly identical. Certain Vinyl episodes even end with cliffhangers that are ripped right out of the lonely, symbolic, portentous Mad Men playbook. Such as Richie sitting alone in his den, where a Warhol silkscreen of his wife used to hang, the newly bare space on the wall telegraphing his self-fashioned estrangement, as “Danny’s Song” ironically revels in undying love on the soundtrack.
Resonant isolated scenes are strewn throughout the narrative, shining like pearls on a cluttered necklace. Flashbacks to Richie and Devon’s first meeting in a club have a poignant sexual intensity, which is remarkably explored in a montage, set to the Carpenters’s “Yesterday Once More,” in which Devon loses herself in nostalgia, cruising along a road while envisioning Karen Carpenter singing beside her. A long date night between Richie, Hannibal, Devon, and one of Richie’s employees, Cece (Susan Heyward), flirts with how far Richie’s willing to prostitute his wife for a business deal, exploring American male jealousy and its kissing cousin—a hard-to-qualify kind of arousal that’s triggered by betrayal.
Yet for all of this self-conscious effort, there’s never much of an impression that anything matters. Vinyl never feels as if it’s truly about the record business, which instead serves as a backdrop for iconic guest characters and mob-movie set pieces. The characters simply aren’t that interesting, as they’ve all been clearly derived from a pop-cultural blender; they are “types,” and the actors’ performances, which are lively but uniformly unsurprising, are drowned out by flashy pomp and circumstance. Vinyl is a fictional exploration of an exciting time in American music that’s encased in nostalgia masquerading as daring.