April 17, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “Vinyl”


VINYL watchers, HBO feels your pain.  Late in a run that matched low ratings with little buzz or critical enthusiasm, the network took the unusual step of not just firing co-creator/showrunner Terence Winter, but of publicizing that decision before Season 1 even finished airing, despite the fact that HBO and Winter have a history together that goes back to The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire.  (He was replaced with a team of Scott Z. Burns, a screenwriter who’s worked frequently with Steven Soderbergh, and Max Borenstein, who created last fall’s flop TV version of Minority Report.)  The message was clear:  Season 2 is going to be very different.  So this is as much a postmortem as a season finale review.

Burns and Borenstein have their work cut out for them.  Vinyl isn’t a show that started big and then plunged–it was low when it began and stayed that way.  People just weren’t interested in watching the story of 1970s coke-head record company honcho Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), despite the starry names of Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger attached as co-creators (along with Rich Cohen, who had developed the project with the two mega-names in its original incarnation as a potential feature film).  That premise is what it is, so it’s not clear what will make viewers change their minds and decide to tune in after a season of failure.

Obviously, the thing Burns and Borenstein can do is make a better, more compelling show.  Vinyl seemed to be aiming at the emblematic when it was just cliched:  the endless blow going up noses, the chaos of the music business, the broken marriages and everyday corruption.  Richie himself never stood apart from the crowd around him, his mix of intensity, overpowering ego and powerful guilt familiar from any number of other cable dramas.  And it has to be said that given his chance to do what James Gandolfini and Bryan Cranston had done, rising from solid character actor to leading man, Cannavale’s performance was convincing and committed throughout but was never able to provide that extra spark Richie needed.

HBO gave Vinyl the deluxe treatment, with expensive production values that included a seemingly unlimited music budget (even bearing the expense of a crown jewel master recording, the Beatles performing “Here Comes the Sun”).  But the plotting was weak, with a killing that fell somewhere between self-defense and manslaughter; gangsters so hackneyed that Winter in particular should have been embarrassed to write them after the far more complex figures he’d previously given us from that world; dope-addict, insecure rockers; subordinates for Richie who were idiots or kvetches (although Ray Romano was extremely good as the leading latter), with a few striving youngsters mixed in.  The women were particularly undeveloped, even with Olivia Wilde, Juno Temple and Annie Parisse playing the hell out of what they were given.  (Wilde, as Richie’s estranged wife, wasn’t even seen in the season finale.)

Perhaps the most telling failure of Season 1 was its lack of any real viewpoint on the music itself.  Vinyl nodded to the birth of disco and punk rock, but Richie didn’t have any particular vision about either (he didn’t even seem to be aware of disco) or of what he wanted his label to release–we were mostly expected to believe his taste and daring were more special than anyone else’s because he’d occasionally stare off into the distance as he listened to a song.  Given an incredibly fertile period to cover, Vinyl settled for insights that didn’t go beyond those of a music channel’s weekend documentary.

Tonight’s finale, written by Winter and directed by Allen Coulter, was smooth but unsatisfying.  Richie apparently got away with his killing, thanks to Godfather Corrado (Armen Garo) shooting the only witness, loudmouth Joe Corso (Bo Dietl), which allowed Richie to all but ignore his supposed deal with the cops.  The label’s punk band Nasty Bits had a successful debut after its lead singer (James Jagger, Mick’s son) recovered from a heroin overdose and his jealousy over A&R woman Jamie (Temple) having a threesome with him and a bandmate.  The season ended with Richie giving a rousing but not particularly meaningful mission statement to his troops about the new Alibi sub-label giving a voice to disaffected youth, and the staff merrily spray-painting their offices at Richie’s behest.

This Vinyl wasn’t painful to watch, but it didn’t justify the effort that went into making it or the 11 hours it took to witness.  But some bands don’t really find themselves until their second albums, and perhaps Vinyl can put together a better track list next time around.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."