In the third episode of HBO’s Vinyl (and best, so far, for what that’s worth), the strengths and weaknesses as a show are coming into focus, as it’s at its best in the office, in boardrooms, with unprincipled men sitting around bullshitting formlessly. There’s a delightful scene where Richie and the boys are figuring out who to cut from their roster to save costs, which, divorced from all other context, is a sublimely mounted tableau of guys being assholes to no particularly profound end for a few minutes. This may sound like faint praise. Maybe it is. But Vinyl was a pleasurable thing to watch during that scene.
There’s another quite pleasurable scene, albeit one tinged by a bit of heavy-handed foreshadowing, that also doubles as a rare instance of Vinyl incorporating a real person in a non-embarrassing manner. As alluded to in the pilot, Lester has been hanging around with Kool Herc, whose turntablism isn’t quite doing it for the old guys in the community center. Given the pace at which Vinyl is progressing, it may be some time before we see the full-on block parties that birthed hip-hop, at which point it’ll be in better shape to handle them properly as a show.
The episode-long shaggy dog joke involving overeager, A&R would-be climber Clark trying to persuade Alice Cooper to sign solo with Richie’s company is weirdly beguiling. The fact that actor Dustin Ingram doesn’t look or sound anything like the real Alice Cooper is a distraction (like every other time a real person shows up on Vinyl), but it’s only a mild one in this case because Alice/Vincent is an actual character with a place in the narrative. His whole apparent dance with Clark ultimately turns out to be an elaborate means of humiliating the man as a proxy for Richie, and one guesses it’s supposed to be funny.
The Nasty Bits, however, could not have been named more appropriately if they were called The Part Of The Show That Is Not Good Because the Producer’s Son Can’t Act and The Band Sounds Like Time Travelers from 30 Years in the Future and Nothing Any of the Characters Say About Them Match the Bullshit Coming Out of the Speakers. It’s not just that the Nasty Bits plotline is bad, it’s that the bad elements represent what the show as a whole gets wrong about music. Vinyl, at its worst, seems to have been conceived in terms like “yeah, wow, the early 70s, there was some stuff going on back then, let’s do a show about it,” but any detail past the broadest of strokes feels like an annoyance standing in the way of Emmy nominations and money. This may sound cruel, but if your show is going to deal with the birth of punk, it should be a little more concerned with what exactly that means.
The thing about Vinyl is that, if it was good, the series would be a lot more fun to watch. If it was thoroughly rotten with nothing to recommend, Vinyl would be more fun to hate-watch (for people who are into that sort of thing). It remains, though, frustratingly in the middle, with really good stuff right next to really bad stuff right next to mediocre wheel-spinning (the gangster/murder narrative fits into this slot) next to angels and ministers of grace that defend us from this aesthetic evil. Maybe the Nasty Bits will overdose in a plane crash and Richie will end up signing the Ramones or something. The show is, after all, still young.
Danny Bowes (@bybowes) is an artist and critic whose film and TV writing has appeared in Premiere, Tor.com, The Atlantic, Indiewire, Yahoo! Movies, RogerEbert.com, Salt Lake City Weekly, and The A.V. Club.