Much of the first season of Vinyl reminded me of Richard Pryor’s bit about buying a pet monkey, and in a more cosmic sense during the finale entitled “Alibi”. The monkey, without proper guidance, proceeds to monomaniacally attempt to stick his dick in Pryor’s ear. In the bit, all ends well for the monkey, as Pryor, in his infinite wisdom, acquires a female monkey to educate his tormentor in the ways and means of proper dick disposition. For Vinyl, the first season ends on a slightly more cohesive note than it began, but it’s still hammering away at an ear rather than seeking harbor elsewhere.
For one, “Alibi” is one leg short of a Bad Vinyl Episode Triple Crown, featuring an excessive focus on the stale, re-re-refried gangster subplot and another unctuous Richie monologue about “real” music. All it’s missing is Richie faffing around on coke, which thankfully seems to be in the past for now (although it was a sly touch, in what’s eventually revealed to be Hilly Kristal’s bar, having Richie drinking a Coke when he meets with the US Attorney and his fed liaison). And, admittedly, Richie’s supernatural faith in cocaine as the eternal curative gives us the hilarious scene where, to get an overdosing Kip ready to perform in a couple minutes, Richie enters full paramedic mode and bellows “tie him off . . . get me some coke!” to anyone who might be listening, and within seconds, he has a shot of coke ready to save the day. (I was half expecting Richie to simply do the coke himself and then think of a way to save Kip and the Bits’ gig, but alas, I was not in the writers’ room.)
Despite dwelling in the show’s decidedly weaker areas, the episode itself is competently mounted, sufficiently resolving enough story to be a satisfactory season finale while leaving enough to build on for the next season. That sounds a bit blandly workmanlike because it kind of is. Terence Winter’s (presumably unintentional) swan song on the show is competent (from a technical standpoint, that is; ignoring all the women characters except for the one everyone yells at is lazy and unimaginative) and spells everything out nice and legibly, just like Allen Coulter’s direction. And that’s fine, although the script in particular asks repeatedly for the courtesy that everyone assume that relationships and themes that need to be established have been, when that isn’t always the case (i.e. Clark and Jorge having an actual relationship born of making the Indigo record into a hit, when really they’ve only been in a handful of scenes together and barely interact).
This brings us to my biggest takeaway from the first season of Vinyl. I have said some mean things about the show, and I don’t think that it’s very good or that it holds up to any degree of scrutiny whatsoever. That being said, I think that it might be possible to watch Vinyl for the namedropping and the music and the nudity (including, in a departure from standard cable drama, dudity! There are more dicks on Vinyl than any HBO show since Oz, by informal count) while not paying any attention to continuity or any moment’s relation to any other particular moment. As something to put on the TV while zoning out, it may very well be just the thing. But it simply does not hold up to any kind of scrutiny past the production design and a handful of the performances. Vinyl’s sense of music history is surface-level and haphazard, and, most damning, it has yet to fully reveal why it needs to exist (over the course of 11 entire hours). Why did we need to spend 11 hours with Richie Finestra? Who the fuck is he? What is that thing, and why are you trying to stick it in my ear?
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.