You won't be surprised to learn that the two-hour series premiere of Vinyl, HBO's new period drama, was directed by Martin Scorsese. It's not just that Scorsese's a co-creator and co-executive producer of the series; it's also that so many of the requisite boxes are ticked off that it could not not be Scorsese at the wheel. Omnipresent cocaine? Check. A snarky voiceover read by an Italian-American protagonist? Check. A lurid fascination with the nasty bits of New York City's history and geography? Check. A screenplay that reads like a hurricane of f-words with a 90 percent chance of bloodshed? Checkmate.
To be fair, the formula rarely disappoints. But now Scorsese is in TV territory for only the third time in his career, and he’s going up against fan favorites like The Walking Dead and Downton Abbey. In this extremely competitive Sunday night landscape, the expected Scorsese fare we find in Vinyl begins to feel, well, expected.
It's 1973. Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) is the head of the struggling fictional record label American Century, and he and his colleagues are preparing to sell it and walk away with moneybags. Our hero hears the first faint rumblings of a future musical phenomenon when he follows a horde of young people galloping toward the ill-fated Mercer Arts Center; once inside, Richie lays eyes and ears on glam rockers the New York Dolls. The combination of the music (Berry-esque rock turned up to a fuzzy 11 and belted in the distinctive baritone croon of David Johansen) and the atmosphere (druggy kids smoking in the hallways, freak flags flying without reservation) has Richie so hypnotized that he begins to second-guess the sale of his label. What is this new music? he wonders.
Only for cognoscenti?
Here's where things get muddy. A viewer with no background in NYC gutter punk would be unlikely to recognize the Dolls, and would probably hear their music as boilerplate Stones-aping. And their appearance in Vinyl is but one among many Easter eggs Scorsese has hidden in plain sight for nerds like me who spent our youths binging on digitized copies of old records by the Stooges, the Velvets, the Dolls, and all their Bowery brethren.
Observe, for instance, the Nasty Bits, a fictional group whose lead singer (James Jagger, spawn of Mick, who's also a co-creator) wants to get the band signed to American Century. He sings the praises of the Stooges — then still headed by one Iggy Pop — but qualifies his praise: "It's the Asheton brothers making the great music. Iggy just prances around. . . .It makes me feel sick." Now, plenty of people know who Iggy Pop is, and I'm sure that plenty of those plenty have at least heard of the Stooges. But dragging the brothers Asheton into the conversation is sure to give pause to anyone who hasn't read Please Kill Me. Vinyl's dialogue and imagery are loaded with these references, and they often dominate entire scenes. It's an effective way to place the narrative in a specific time and place, but it's overzealous.
More bothersome is that the story beneath all the metatext is mostly familiar. Richie cuts the figure of a latter-day Don Draper, sans the identity crises; he's a good talker and a demanding, critical boss. American Century's office "sandwich girl" (Juno Temple) is determined to find the next big band and thus climb the record company ladder — a story we also know from Mad Men and countless prior fictions. There's a murder that threatens to complicate Richie's life and send him spiraling out of his sobriety, but its role in the larger narrative of the show seems likely to be similar to that of the murder in The Affair: a complication and an inconvenience, if rarely a source of meaning and character growth.
The best thing about the show is a subplot involving Richie's shared history with Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh), a black blues guitarist managed by Richie early in both men's careers. Richie's love of the blues drew him to Lester, but his desire to advance his career led him to betray his friend, whose career has never recovered. This subplot leads us to consider the long history of the appropriation of black music by white artists and executives — a great cultural theft rarely addressed in narratives of white rock and roll. Scorsese also interpolates scenes of legendary black artists like Otis Redding and Bo Diddley playing empty rooms, as if haunting Richie and the entire industry he represents.
The seeds are here laid for a deeper exploration of how race has determined the course of 20th-century music. In the show's present year, 1973, we find Lester hanging out at a venue where some of the earliest hip-hop beats are heard. When Richie asks what that music is, he gets a gun pulled on him. "What's it to you, motherfucker?" says a local pimp, as if to protect the music from white influence.
Two hours is too long in commercial-free television. Scorsese's story (created in collaboration with Jagger, Rich Cohen, and Terence Winter) has more than enough moving parts to fill the time, but he fills his plate too high and too early. TV programs have to grow with us, working slowly but giving us just enough to hang on for the next episode. Vinyl has plenty of potential. I'm on board, but I'm also exhausted.