Music can do some really cool things in television shows. Last week’s TV Roulette selection, Underground, used modern music to add a dynamic spin to its story, making a period piece feel hip and vibrant, and shows in general have gradually realized that music choices can really help make parts of an episode pop in ways they wouldn’t otherwise. So it is no surprise that this week’s selection HBO’s Vinyl would choose to not only embrace music, but make an entire show about it. As HBO’s second series involving Martin Scorsese (after Boardwalk Empire), Vinyl had huge expectations when it premiered. Now that it is well into its first season, the roulette wheel has decided to have me take a dip in these musical waters. Did this show prove to be worth the listen, or was it a cacophony of pain for my ears? Find out right after a quick rundown.
TV Roulette Week 15
Vinyl; ‘The King and I,’ Season 1, Episode 7
March 27th 2016
Have I Seen This Show Before?
I always keep meaning to watch it, but when given the chance I am overcome with a sense of meh.
It’s official: I am so done with the whole ‘man trying to navigate some industry while fighting being a horrible person’ genre. Maybe one day I can go back again, but at this point the whole thing simply bores me. I say this because there is nothing horribly wrong with Vinyl. It’s well-shot and directed. The acting is rather good, especially Bobby Cannavale as Richie (I am really glad he is finally the lead in a big show, because he is a really good actor) and Ray Romano as Zak. The music is awesome, and you can totally see how Vinyl is a true love letter to music. But at the basic writing and story level, this show just feels so old and tired. Most of this episode centers on Richie and Zak, and while there are a lot of really interesting scenes and the actors do good work, I found myself wanting to watch anyone else as the episode tread across very familiar lines. The only real question for the episode was whether they were going to lose their money because Richie is an awful person or because both Richie and Zak are stupid. Neither option is particularly that interesting, because at this point television has become so oversaturated with flawed male protagonists that there is nothing really new to say about them.
I had thought that the biggest thing everyone learned from Ray Donovan is that the American audience is mostly done with this genre, no matter how good its lead actor might be (case in point, Liev Schreiber). Sure, people still watch, but Mad Men and Breaking Bad basically closed the book on this genre for now, and television really needs to move on from it, or at least understand that this type of flawed male character needs to at least be part of a true ensemble and not the lead. But old habits die hard, I guess. That’s what kills Vinyl. It just feels so antiquated. There are a lot of interesting stories to tell about the music industry in the 1970s, but this just isn’t one of them. Juno Temple’s Jamie is barely in this episode at all, and I found both her actual and potential story significantly more interesting in every way. Why not make this show with her as the main character? That idea has potential, because it would be approaching the 1970s music scene from such a different perspective.
One of the most fascinating things about the existence of Halt and Catch Fire is that, after it tried to be Mad Men set in the tech world in season one (even bringing in Lee Pace to be the next Don Draper), the show runners realized that wasn’t interesting and completely retooled the show in season two to make more of an ensemble focused on its two female leads, MacKenzie Davis and Kerry Bishé. As a result of that choice, the second season prospered creatively. Vinyl really should consider doing something like that, because if this is all the show is going to be, then there is nothing about it really worth discussing. The music is fun and all, but no one needs a television show to talk about music. We can all just listen to it separately.
Speaking of the music, the show could also use it a lot better than it does now. Mick Jagger is a co-creator and executive music director, so it is no surprise that the music in this episode is mostly good, but it often lacks any real impact because it is used so frequently. For a show like this, the music should really be as big a part of the story as the writing–it should be a unique experience. So it is really disappointing that when it comes to music, the show mostly feels like any other show, just with more of it. This show is just so conventional when it should anything but, and it’s disheartening. Underground didn’t necessarily hit all of its music choices, but every song actively changed how that scene was perceived. Vinyl needs to embrace being different, and try really push the ways music can be used in television if it wants to be anything more than a mostly fine show that has some cool moments every now and then. There’s nothing inherently wrong with setting the bar there–Better Call Saul is basically the best version of this type of show, although it has Vince Gilligan and much of the Breaking Bad staff there to help elevate things when necessary. But given Vinyl‘s subject matter and pedigree, it just feels like such a wasted opportunity.
The idea of missed opportunities is really important to harp on here, because HBO is in a unique position right now due to Game of Thrones. When you have arguably the only consensus show on television, on top of the fact that you are HBO and can do what you want, you should really be more willing to take risks. To HBO’s credit, it has done that on the smaller end of things with shows like Togetherness or Looking, but the network has been hesitant when it comes to its truly big properties (give or take a The Leftovers). Of course, when you are offered the chance to work with The Rock in Ballers, or a project involving both Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger, you don’t simply pass; but I wonder if HBO is getting a bit too complacent as networks like Netflix and Amazon seem more and more willing to take greater chances. It’s possible that the upcoming Westworld might change this perception, but it feels like HBO has been a bit too content to simply hit singles and the occasional double instead of going for home runs. That’s survivable as long as Game of Thrones is around to be the foundation of your network, but at some point the network’s time with Westeros will end, and by that time HBO may realize that the medium has left it behind.
You may be wondering at this point, “Umm, what actually happened in this episode of Vinyl?” The quick answer: not much. Richie and Zak need money for their record label. They sell their jet to make said money. They go to Vegas to try and sign Elvis (yes, that Elvis) as a client. They fail, and Richie loses all their money. The end. There is more to the episode than that, but really that is all that happens. Richie spends the episode trying to stay clean after it appears his wife took the children and left him because he was a drunken and drugged up mess. Admittedly, Richie struggling with staying sober is interesting, except for the fact that, even having never seen the show before, I knew it wouldn’t stick. Why try and tell a real story about struggling with alcoholism and recovery when you can just have your main character be an awful person and fail almost immediately after trying to get clean? I mean, seriously, can we have a talk at this point as a medium? Can we all agree, Television, that if you are going to have a character try and get their life together and fail, we should at least give them more than one episode so it doesn’t simply feel like a cheap writing trick? There is nothing wrong with allowing a character to actually look like they can change. I know change can be scary, but if Richie is only going to last one episode, what the hell is even the point of pretending? Especially if the entire episode is just going fixate on what he is missing, so we don’t even see the positive or negative affects of this choice. It just feels lazy at this point–as does even pretending Richie is anything but an awful person. He loses all the money for the label by betting it at the roulette table, and then pretends it is Zak’s fault, because what’s the point of telling a remotely interesting version of this story? Although the only alternative ending was Zak and Richie getting robbed by two women they meet in Vegas so… there aren’t any good choices here.
Honestly, I could write more about what happens in this show or what it means or whatever, but I just don’t see the point. This show is fine, but there’s nothing else worth discussing about a show like this that isn’t special. Maybe it can get better, but it just feels like a show that should have happened ten years ago, and is now woefully, pointlessly antiquated. It’s still better than a lot of what is on television, so gold star for that I guess, but I don’t know if that is really saying all that much. There are definitely parts of this episode that are good and worth watching, and if you just need something that won’t be bad, sure, give this show a shot. But with all there is to watch on television right now, my and everyone else’s time is better spent trying watch shows that are at least try to do something innovative and fun as opposed to telling a story that we were all collectively over four years ago.
Notes and Observations
- Juno Temple really does stand out in this episode. She has basically nothing to do, but her conversation with Jack Quaid’s Clark had more to it than almost anything else in the episode.
- Ray Romano continues to deserve credit for really committing to doing diverse roles after being a sitcom star for so long. Most people in his position would either have just found another sitcom that let him do the same shit he had been doing or stopped acting all together, but Ray has really strived to do intriguing roles in shows like Parenthood and Men of a Certain Age. He is doing his best here, even if the material lacks any real passion or soul.
- Annie Parisse’s Andrea also is quite interesting in her brief screen time. Would this show be 100% more interesting if she was in Bobby Cannavale’s role, or at least closer to a lead position? Yep.
- The show is at least not boring visually, at least going by this episode. The production design and costuming also pop, even if the writing does not.
- Shawn Wayne Klush’s performance as Elvis is great. There is a real blend of magnetism and sadness as Klush perfectly hits the idea of an aging Elvis who still has appeal, but has watched the world pass him by. (Yeah, but does he beat Bruce Campbell? – Ed) Cannavale also really shines in their interactions, because it allows him to get away from all the baggage that is dragging his character down throughout the rest of the episode.
- The fascination with the number 18 cost Richie a lot of money, but unfortunately I don’t think we are done with that number. While it would be really interesting for this to have just been an episode about how getting caught up in ideas of fate and the significance of numbers is dangerous and can lead to ruin, that is just not how writing for television works. That number will means something before the season ends, even if what it means isn’t actually something good.
- This may seem high, but actually it proves a point. This is a B show that will probably never be more if it doesn’t shake up its content. Sure, that means its floor is a B-, like here, but that also means its ceiling is a B+, so it can never be a truly great show. The problem is, this show thinks it can be a great show, and that delusion could eventually cause it to sink even lower into the abyss.
Will I watch more?
- No. There’s so much better and more interesting stuff to watch instead. Come back to me if this show realizes it needs to completely restructure its premise.
That’s it for this week’s TV Roulette. Vinyl proved to be worthy of my initial meh response to it. Will the next installment’s show have any better luck? I sure hope so. Find out next time, and until then just remember, if you feel like doing cocaine, the best response is to pick up a bikini-clad woman and throw her in a pool so you can follow after her, apparently.