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Vinyl, HBO's new drama, is sizzling and flashy and ultimately empty

Set in the 1970s music industry, it boasts great performances, amazing direction, and a hollow core.

Richie (Bobby Cannavale) has a rock 'n' roll religious experience on Vinyl.
Richie (Bobby Cannavale) has a rock 'n' roll religious experience on Vinyl.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Vinyl, HBO's new drama set in the music industry in the '70s, has everything going for it.



Its pilot was directed by Martin Scorsese. Its showrunner and head writer is Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire vet Terence Winter. It has Mick Jagger behind the scenes to lend authenticity. And its cast is full of great actors, led by swaggering leading man Bobby Cannavale, who's made a long career of being the best — or at least wildest — thing about dozens of projects, from Nurse Jackie to Blue Jasmine.

Vinyl is, in other words, an Event — of the sort that only HBO and Netflix seem able to mount anymore, at least on a regular basis. And the show's two-hour pilot very much feels like an event, with ostentatious musical performances, glorious camerawork, and a conclusion that all but causes the sky to collapse.

And yet there's something missing, something that holds Vinyl back from being as good as it could be. There's enough talent here for the show to at least be good. But given its pedigree, it has the potential for greatness, and at least through its first five episodes (all that HBO sent out), Vinyl falls short of that mark.

It's because the show has the wrong protagonist.

You have seen the story at Vinyl's center many times before

Bobby Cannavale (left) and Ato Essandoh star in Vinyl.

Cannavale plays Richie Finestra, a record label executive who finds himself feeling bored with the unfocused slate of artists that American Century, the label he works for, represents. Sure, some of them sell records, but what happened to passion? What happened to loving the music? What happened to pizzazz? Worse, the record-buying public can feel this scatteredness. American Century's profits are slipping. Something must be done.

Over the course of the pilot, Winter (who wrote the episode's script with Breaking Bad vet George Mastras) and Scorsese deftly dance between time periods, depicting Richie's current malaise in contrast with his young, hungry era, when he wanted nothing more than to bring great music to the masses.

Feeling cut off from that younger self, Richie begins a process that is something like a career resurrection, as he tries to find a way to rejuvenate American Century's fortunes in tandem with his own love for what he does. And Cannavale is magnetic in the part. He roams the screen like a big cat at the zoo who's only recently realized that nobody's been locking his cage at night.

Cannavale and Winter collaborated on a gonzo performance from Cannavale in Boardwalk Empire's third season, and the actor has always seemed like he would be a natural fit with Scorsese (he is). Plus, he's got a sly smirk that keeps everything from becoming too overbearing. Vinyl, if nothing else, will never collapse under the weight of its own self-seriousness, thanks to Cannavale's work.

But his hungry performance obscures just how familiar this story is. A middle-aged, affluent white man who's feeling disconnected from his professional and personal lives? It's been done many times, and it's been done many times well enough that there's not a lot of space to do anything new or exciting when it comes to this particular trope. Tony Soprano and Don Draper are standing right there, and they're taking up a lot of oxygen.

Swap out any element of the premise I just described, and there's still some room to maneuver. Look at how much mileage Better Call Saul (returning Monday, February 15, on AMC) gets simply out of making its middle-aged white guy feel a crippling money crunch, for instance.

But Vinyl falls prey to thinking it's simply enough to toss this overdone story arc into the hands of a great actor. It's not.

All of Vinyl's other characters would make a better protagonist than Richie. Literally all of them.

Vinyl cast
The good people of American Century would like to sell you some records.

Richie, of course, is not an island. He's surrounded by co-workers and conspirators and the usual thankless cable wife. But what's fascinating about Vinyl is that Winter and his writers seem more interested in everyone who isn't Richie.

There are shades of Boardwalk Empire in this approach. In that earlier series, Winter eventually leaned into the fact that his central character (Steve Buscemi's gangster Nucky Thompson) was less interesting than essentially everybody else onscreen. Nucky became an important power player on the show, but not its absolute nucleus. He was just the guy most of the other stories intersected with, and it worked, more or less.

Vinyl is also buoyed by many intriguing supporting players who come into their own the more they're on screen. Take Juno Temple as Jamie, a young woman who discovers a punk band and tries to convince Richie and some other American Century execs that they're worth taking a chance on. Or the lead singer of that band, played by James Jagger (yes, Mick's son), whose dream is on the line. Or even Ray Romano's Zak, American Century's head of promotions, who finds his personal bank account mirroring the label's bank account.

I could list at least a dozen other characters whose stories are immediately more arresting than Richie's, including the aforementioned "thankless cable wife." Here, the role is played by Olivia Wilde, who's bringing everything she has to an underwritten part, exploding with raw feeling, anger, and sensuality in episode after episode.

What all these characters have in common is that they have actual stories. Their goals and desires and hopes and dreams are tangible and easy to explain. Important elements of their lives and self-worth are on the line. In contrast, Richie has a vague feeling of unease, a rough business plan, and, ultimately, not all that much at risk. If American Century tanks, the worst that will happen to him is that his plan won't work out. He's not betting as much — so the reward isn't as great.

The show is still worth watching

The series' electric direction is the chief reason to check it out.

There are still gorgeous moments and sequences in Vinyl. In particular, Scorsese fills the pilot with musical numbers that spring from the music characters hear piping out of their radios or record players. It's a neat way to explore how music fans actually experience that music when they hear it out in the world.

Similarly, it's fun to watch Scorsese and later episode directors (who include longtime TV hand Allen Coulter and indie film genius Mark Romanek) give 1970s office politics a tense, nervy edge. The camera paces through the offices as if it's been snorting cocaine, just like several of the characters do, and the story often feels as if it will simply tip over the edge into inspired weirdness, rather than any kind of coherence.

But then Vinyl finds its way back to Richie, and you're reminded all over again that for as many good moments as the show can cook up, there's still something fundamentally hollow at its core. It's almost as if the series is testing just how little you actually need your TV show to have an arresting story, so long as everything else looks and feels like a million bucks.

And what's amazing is that it very nearly works. By the time I reached the end of episode five, I really did want to see more. Vinyl feels like it's still doing its mic checks, but somewhere along the way, it just might burst out into a blistering solo. And it's worth paying attention until it does.

Vinyl debuts Sunday, February 14, at 9 pm Eastern on HBO. It will also be available on HBO Go.