3 out of 5 stars

The final episode of Vinyl’s first season was also the last to be written by co-creator Terence Winter, who will be replaced for the second season by Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum) and Max Borenstein (Godzilla)—neither of whom have ever helmed a television series. It would be nice to say that the likeable and talented Winter’s final episode was an absolute corker, but unfortunately, like the season as a whole, it was something of a mixed bag.

The main problem with Vinyl is that it doesn’t seem to know what it is. Is it a great mythic tale of rock n’ roll debauchery and New York in the ’70s? A bleak, clear, often harrowing look at addiction? An expose of the reality of music business corruption? A mafia tale? A soap opera?

The truth is, at times it’s all of these things and none of them. At its heart Vinyl doesn’t really know what tale it wants to tell, and because of that it comes across a sprawling shaggy dog story. Plots are hinted at and then dropped, characters grab prominent storylines but then melt into the background. Occasionally there’s the hint of a central theme—Richie’s (Bobby Cannavale) addiction and its cost on all around him, Devon’s (Olivia Wilde) desire to break free of her life, Lester’s (Ato Essandoh) search for recompense for the career he lost—but then it sinks back, subsumed in the morass of everything else going on. Vinyl is an over-stuffed show. There are too many plotlines and too many characters, yet despite some fine acting, few of those characters are well developed enough for us to care about them. Like Richie desperately trying to save failing record company American Century, this show has spent ten episodes throwing any number of plotlines at the wall and hoping one of them sticks. In all honesty, none of them have.

Can these problems be sorted out by the second season? I truly don’t know. There’s a sense that Vinyl, Mick Jagger’s long-gestating love child, was always more of a concept (“the music industry is awesome”) than a fully-fledged TV show. So for season two to work, severe pruning and reworking is going to have to occur.

Living in real gangster times

The first thing that needs to go is the mafia subplot. Yes, Winter, who cut his teeth on The Sopranos before helming Boardwalk Empire, has always been great at mob tales—and yes, the music industry was tied to mob money, but this plot was a turgid drag on the series. I found myself completely unable to care that it largely got wrapped up this week, with the FBI monitoring Galasso (Armen Garro), Zak (Ray Romano) trying to sell Richie out and failing, a quick conversation about a dodgy chop shop next to Yankee Stadium, and a raid. Galasso ended the season down but not yet out, having killed Joe Corso (Bo Dietl), put the frighteners on Zak, and unaware that it’s Richie who’s the informant. I don’t, however, care and it seemed horribly perverse to give the largest part of the season finale over to its worst aspect. Here’s hoping they drop this entire subplot, which has been largely meaningless from the moment we realised Richie wouldn’t get done for Buck’s murder, from the second season.

Heroin, it’s my life and it’s wife

One of the most annoying things about Vinyl, however, is that I can’t entirely hate it because in every episode there’s at least one beautifully bleak scene that hints at what this show could be in a perfect world. In the finale, that episode came with the desperate attempts to revive Kip following his (I’d say intentional) overdose. As Richie tied him off and injected him with cocaine and heroin to get him on stage, the true horror came from his band mates’ appalled reactions. The stakes were high and the moneymen would do anything to get their product on stage—for the first time in ten weeks, The Nasty Bits finally realised that. In direct contrast, the episode’s other highlight came from the partnership between Jorge (Christian Navarro) and Clark and the success of their campaign to put Indigo on the map, accidentally inventing disco at the same time. The horror on Julie (Max Casella) and Skip’s faces when they realised that the mail boys had done their job better than them was priceless, although I thought it was an interesting touch that Clark scored an invite to Richie’s Let’s Wreck The Joint party but not Jorge. Some mailroom employees remain more equal than others, I guess…

Sleeve Notes:

  • It was shame to have no Devon in the season finale, although if the last we see of her was that beautiful scene in the doorway of the Chelsea from episode nine it will be a fitting farewell.
  • Richie was on pretty good drug-free form this week, although I felt his previous troubles were glossed over a little bit too easily. I particularly enjoyed the way he pulled the old call the cops trick to get the Nasty Boys some publicity. Oh, Richie, how very Malcolm McLaren of you.
  • That said, the final shot of Zak refusing to forgive him and walking away was a nice touch.
  • Talking of Zak, Ray Romano has been excellent. I still feel for Zak even though he’s an idiot who Richie was right to call out over visiting Galasso.
  • This show is almost redeemed each week by some lovely in-jokes. The two best this week were The Ramones standing in the audience for the Nasty Bits, and the realisation that the grotty bar Richie spends his time nursing coke in (the drink rather than the drug) will become CBGBs.
  • I was glad Jamie survived to fight another day. I did worry that Richie was fully sacking her, but next season I would like to see the outstanding Juno Temple given more to do. And the same goes for Annie Parisse’s sardonic Andi.
  • Finally, at least Lester got his payday and the chance to manage more bands. I like Lester. In fact he might be the only character on this show I truly do like.

Song of the Week:

The season might have been patchy but the soundtrack has been exemplary. This week was as good as ever, but I’m giving it to a song that has a particular place in my furious teenage heart: The MC5 and “Kick Out The Jams“, the ultimate ‘lets smash this joint up’ song.

Quote of the Week:

Whatever happens tonight, I remain as confused as ever.

—Julie sums up the way I feel about Vinyl’s entire first season.

So what did you think? Did Vinyl improve? Or was it a mess to the last? What would you change in the second season? As ever all speculation and no spoilers welcome below…