The competition to have the best show on television is a lot stiffer than it used to be, which is perhaps why HBO’s flashy and often astonishing new drama “Vinyl” feels like the HBO-iest show the network has ever made.
This one throws elbows while displaying its might. To quote a recently boastful pop ditty, the show’s definitely got the moves like Jagger — and, because it’s about the cocaine-crazy record business in the 1970s, it also has Mick Jagger at the top of the bill as a co-creator and in-house muse (and progenitor of one the show’s ensemble cast members).
If the point is to spare no expense in attempting to make a flawless, fascinating premium cable narrative about a set of people — mostly men with enormous egos — who have extreme and often criminal problems in a glamorous period setting, then this is precisely what HBO has accomplished — again. For all the thunder stolen lately by Netflix, Showtime, FX, Amazon and other comers, there’s still nothing quite as sensory and satisfying as when HBO brings out all its firepower.
“Vinyl’s” two-hour premiere on Sunday is directed by Martin Scorsese, who, with Jagger and author Rich Cohen and producer Terence Winter, is also a co-creator. The episode, which is plenty movie-like, could arguably stand alone as Scorsese’s most satisfying film since “The Departed,” filled with a panoramic sense of mania, a powerful use of music and a fiery lead performance from Bobby Cannavale.
The other sure bet here is Winter, a “Sopranos” producer/writer whose last HBO project, “Boardwalk Empire,” was a similar exercise in collaborating with Scorsese and others on the perfect period gangster piece, a densely woven tapestry of crime in the Prohibition era of the 1920s and ’30s. “Boardwalk Empire” was intensely, violently complex throughout its five-season run — so good, I guess, that viewers kept setting it aside, promising to watch it later. (Many never did, even with critics’ assurances that TV couldn’t get much better.)
Substitute the jazz age for glam rock, switch out the bootlegged hooch for endless lines of blow and “Vinyl” could very well be headed for a similar fate. “Vinyl” and “Boardwalk Empire” are in many ways the same show, even though “Vinyl” has a much lower body-count — so far.
Instead of the Atlantic City of Nucky Thompson, we rush headlong into the high-stakes world of Richie Finestra (Cannavale), a struggling drug addict who is also the founder and chief executive of American Century, a big-time record label headquartered in Manhattan’s famous Brill Building.
It’s August 1973 and it has finally dawned on everyone that the ’60s have expired. The label is saddled with mid-level acts across genres — everything from rock to funk to folk to Donny Osmond — a successful teen pop artist, except for the unfortunate matter of boxes and boxes of unsold LPs meant to salvage the label’s bottom line as a tax write-off. With overall sales tumbling and artists defecting, the label is desperate to sign the next big thing.
Richie and his partners (including Ray Romano as Zak Yankovich, the label’s payola expert) are on the verge of selling a majority stake in the label to a sneering group of Germans who run PolyGram. But Richie breaks his sobriety and goes on a coke binge that ends with a divine epiphany at a New York Dolls show downtown: Don’t sell.
The pilot sets a panicky, very Scorsese-esque sense of momentum that carries through future episodes. Richie’s lethargic A&R staff, headed by Julius Silver (Max Casella), struggles to find a new act and keep up with their boss’s head trips.
The so-called “sandwich girl” and office drug-supplier, Jamie Vine (Juno Temple), has already found the new hope — a hard-driving, discordant quintet called the Nasty Bits, fronted by an ill-tempered heroin addict named Kip Stevens (James Jagger). What viewers will easily recognize as a proto-punk rock band is, of course, anathema to the bell-bottomed swingers at American Century, who are focused on sessions for the next England Dan and John Ford Coley release and a Christmas album from Robert Goulet. Plans to woo Led Zeppelin go comically awry; it’s also getting harder to retain the label’s sex-a-delic funk sensation, Hannibal (Daniel J. Watts).
The creators have wisely put heavy emphasis on “Vinyl’s” gorgeous musical interludes. Whether they are scenes triggered by songs that linger in the characters’ memories or meticulously re-created concerts and club gigs that may have actually occurred, the music is given fanatical attention, in a manner reminiscent of David Simon’s “Treme.”
Try as I might to watch TV without an iPhone in hand, “Vinyl” almost demands it, thanks to a seamless stitching together of rock history and make-believe, of fact and fiction. (One scene had me scurrying to Google the story of the actual structural collapse of a certain Lower Manhattan building in the summer of ’73; another scene had me scrolling through track listings on an Alice Cooper album.) The show is never more entertaining than when it drops in actors playing younger versions rock stars and other boldface names from the era — Robert Plant, Lou Reed, Andy Warhol and more. The effect is almost like time travel.
Although “Vinyl’s” core theme is the utter unctuousness of the recording industry, it hardly limits Richie’s troubles to the office. For reasons I’ll withhold, he’s being trailed by two New York homicide detectives; Scorsese and Winter also can’t resist saddling him with sidebar mafia matters. A chance encounter with a former blues musician, Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh), who once put all his hopes in Richie’s promises, leads to a deeper storyline about betrayal and disappointment — as well as the industry’s inherent racism.
It’s easy to see why “Vinyl” is built around Richie’s travails, but in the first five (of 10) episodes, the show’s most memorable character might well be Richie’s wife, Devon, played by Olivia Wilde. A former Warhol girl who gave up the high life to raise her and Richie’s children in Stepford-like Connecticut, Devon picks up the dropped baton from a (presumably deceased) Betty Draper, turning her husband’s neglect into a productive source of rage. Held at a certain angle in the light, “Vinyl” could almost be read as a hyperactive sequel to “Mad Men’s” 1971 stopping point. Certainly it rivals “Mad Men’s” shaggy wigs and obsession for Me Decade details, down to every scrap of garish wallpaper.
Wilde is fabulous and calculatingly cool as Devon. Lulled by the voice of Karen Carpenter singing “Yesterday Once More” on the station-wagon radio, she accidentally drives off and leaves her kids at a diner, and I’m reminded that it was the female characters in “Boardwalk Empire” (Kelly Macdonald as Margaret Schroeder Thompson; Gretchen Mol as Gillian Darmody), as well as the minority characters (Michael Kenneth Williams as Chalky White), who gave that show an accessibility and emotional depth it wouldn’t have had if it were populated only with its endless parade white male mobsters. “Vinyl” is also guy-heavy, reflecting the realities of the rock-and-roll biz and its diminishment of women and minorities. But yet again it deserves asking: Why can’t any of these top-notch shows build a narrative around the woman instead of the man?
Through characters like Devon, Jamie and Lester, “Vinyl” has very thoughtfully dotted its i’s and crossed its t’s in terms of diversity, but testosterone is still clearly HBO’s most addictive (and preferred) substance. Testosterone is what throws the guitar through the console television set or bashes in the head of a menacing foe in drug-fueled rage. Testosterone hurls itself off the stage and into the crowd. Testosterone wears the tight pants and unbuttons its polyester shirt to the navel. “Vinyl” is HBO reminding the rest of the TV world that it has the hairiest, sexiest chest in town.
Vinyl (two hours) premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.