Review: Vinyl Season 1 (★★★★)

4 stars

When Vinyl began It promised a Scorsese tinted look at the sex, drugs and rock n roll world of 1970’s New York, yet, but the end of the season the 10 hour ride seems to have left us in no better place than the show could have been in only a few episodes after the pilot. I enjoyed the ride, don’t get me wrong, but this season’s finale feels so nicely tied up that it’s almost like the writer has left and a new one has come in; oh wait, he has.

The two-hour pilot episode was a real mess in many people’s eyes. Too much happened, there was no character development and there were far too many clichés. Yet, despite this, it was one of the most enjoyable season premiers I’ve ever seen. I never expected much from it, but the show drags you kicking and screaming through a beautifully realised and irresistibly cool 1970’s. It was a glimpse into the past through the eyes of a coked up madman, of course, it was going to be rough around the edges.

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After The New York Dolls literally bring the house down on Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), he decides that his record label needs to turn a new leaf and head in a different direction rather than sell the company on. During this time, Richie finds himself at the house of a vile local radio host who subsequently, after a 3-day drug and alcohol binge, tries to kill him. After Richie and a friend of the radio host take him down, it all goes a little too far as they have to kill him to put an end to his limitless rage. With this laying on Richie’s mind, he heads straight back to the coke, which aids him with deciding the company needs to seek fresher talent. After returning the company and less than politely telling those that are going to buy them out to cancel the agreement, it has a huge toll on those in the company that were expecting a large paycheck. This is all in the first episode and leaves a hell of a lot of questions that take way too much time to be answered.

As the season progressed, there were a lot of things the show got wrong. We spend way too much time watching Richie Finestra coked up, having a good time and ruining the lives of those around him. He not only causes those higher up in the company to lose out big time, but it also causes a lot of redundancies in the company for those lower down. Richie then proceeds to take his problems home to his wife, Devon, and their two children. It is only after episode 6 that Richie finally sees the error in his ways and starts and turn his life around. That’s 6 hours into the 10 hour season. After that, we then have an episode in Las Vegas where Richie and his partner Zak Yankovich (Ray Romano) proceed to try and steal Elvis from another label. That leaves two 3 episodes to wrap this season up and it’s done in such a ham-fisted fashion. Too much time was spent on things that weren’t relevant to the plot. If Richie was really heading in a new direction, a direction where bands such as Yes and Jethro Tull are old hat and not selling like they were, then why are they trying to get Elvis on their label?

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This leads to another issue with the show. Too much time was spent with celebrities that were around at the time. We hang out with Bowie, Elvis and Lennon which, towards the end, never feel organic but rather forced in to attract people less familiar with the time period. This is all going on as the murder case Richie is involved with gets little to no attention. I think this issue is solely down to Scorsese and Jagger’s influence on the pilot; leaving the rest of the writer to work around all these ideas that they threw at the screen.

Despite all these plot issues the show does get a lot of things right. The show feels great; the music is absolutely phenomenal. Not only is the music perfectly of the time, but it is also very appropriate for the scenes. Perhaps my favourite thing about this show, the thing I looked forward to most and went back to watch again after, were the magic realism segments. Here the show would not only play a song that fit well into the scene, but it would also show the artist singing it in the background. These were always incredibly well executed and were something so abstract and fresh that it makes the show worth watching just for these moments. For instance, in ‘Cyclone’ we hear Buddy Holly’s ‘Rave On’ throughout the episode. At the end, we see a flashback to a traumatic time for Richie and Devon. After that, we have a transition from the past to the present which has Buddy Holly coming out in front of the Cyclone fairground ride, where the incident took place, whilst performing ‘Rave On’ that perfectly flows into Richie being in the exact same place realising the mistakes he’s made. It’s truly spectacular. These happen regularly throughout the show and deliver some of its most unique and emotional moments.

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Aside from Richie, we have several other storylines that are mostly better than the main plot. We see Zak as he struggles with finances and a family that see him only as a personal piggy bank. We follow Lester as he loses his voice, due to a vicious beating, and is unable to sing the songs that he wrote for his recording contract. We also follow a band called the Nasty Bits, found by a low-level employee, who are the flagship band for the company’s new sublabel, Alibi.

The performances throughout are incredible. Olivia Wilde as Devon Finestra gives a look into an ex-‘It Girl’ who has been whisked off to the suburbs to become a housewife, yet all she wants is to go back to doing what she was 10 years ago. There is one scene where she is asking her friend Andy Warhol to sign a painting he did of her so that she can sell it to support the family through Richie’s meltdown. It starts as she enters the room and Warhol gets her to sit in front of the camera. He then asks her what she has come for and we get this truly heart aching performance from Wilde, from the cameras perspective, as fights from breaking down into tears. Ray Romano also puts forward a surprisingly great performance as Zak. It is the first time I’ve ever thought, ‘Gee, I really wanna see some more Ray Romano next week.’ Aside from these two standouts, the rest of the cast do a wonderful job of bringing the show to life.

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There has been much criticism of the show for its inaccurate portrayal of events and celebrities. I for one have had no issue with these moments at all and this isn’t because I was unaware of them. For every average performance, there are at least 4 flawless ones.

The show is a rough one. The plot has a huge effect on the pacing and how the show pans out. However, regardless of these issues, the show gets so much right. It absolutely nails the vibe, music, image and visuals so well that it more than makes up for the shows rough core. Next season has a new writer and hopefully it will pick up and be the powerhouse HBO show that it definitely can be. I really hope it does because it has given me some of the most beautiful and emotional moments I’ve ever experience with television. The chills it sends down my spine when the visuals, music and message behind a scene work so flawlessly is something that’s truly incredible and something I hope to be feeling, again and again, come this time next year.

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