HBOs "Vinyl" Glams Out

Vinyl is exactly what you would think it would be: one great big shag carpet of television, all plush and vulgar and teased and dated.  It's drugs and cleavage and pantsuits and lapels as big as Texas and hair as wild as horses and so much shallow excess it'd make the Entourage boys blush. And of course it's about music...sort of. It's about music in the same way Almost Famous is: everyone loves the idea of music, the romance of music, the principle of music, the pretense of music. It's a whole lot of people talking about music instead of actually listening to it.

This glamorous puffery made the first half of Vinyl's first season something of a disappointment.  Premiering to much anticipation due to its heavyweight creators Martin Scorsese, Terrence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), Rich Cohen (Rolling Stone writer, The Rolling Stones' biographer, real-life William Miller), and some little guy named, oh, I don't know, Mick Jagger, it just didn't live up to the hype. But luckily for Vinyl, the 70s was all about inflated hype, and I'm here to argue that around the halfway point, Vinyl really hits its stride.

Vinyl started out trying to be something heavier than it was. Certainly its a surprise to no one that a Scorsese-Winter pairing would birth another violent gangster saga à la Boardwalk Empire. (It doesn't hurt that Vinyl leading-man Bobby Cannavale is fresh in our minds from playing Boardwalk's ruthless mobster Gyp Rosetti, or that he appears genetically predisposed to leave the gun and take the cannoli.) I won't spoil too much to tell you that Vinyl premieres with music mogul Richie Finestra (Cannavale) committing a (self-defense?) crime that sends him down a spiral of drugs and mania and bankruptcy. 

Richie spends the season systematically destroying his sober Connecticut family life and his fledling record company. We watch Richie flounder and fail and be reckless and be ruthless over and over again, a Don Draper-reminiscent spiral of self-destruction. But the problem is we don't know Richie like we knew Don; we haven't seen him be brilliant like Don, we don't have the sympathy of an abusive childhood and a war and a secret identity as helpful windows into his selfishness and sociopathy. We've never seen Richie sober; we've never seem him succeed. The only version of Richie we know is this grappling, impetuous asshole who sort of seems like he had it coming.

But then, something happens that none of us could have predicted, something that I never thought in a million years that I'd type here: Ray Romano saves the day. Romano, in a reputation-bending, transformative performance as  Finestra's fellow record exec, friend, and foil, discovers a willowy teenager singing David Bowie in the empty hotel ballroom after his kid's bar mitzvah. The room slows down and Life on Mars my personal favorite Bowie track spills out of the boy's pouty mouth like glass. He is discovered. Romano signs the kid, changes his bland name to the snazzy mononym "Xavier," drapes him in a sequined, codpieced jumpsuit, and hinges his hopes for the future on Xavier's quivering little lips.

The next few episodes (the last ones in the season) seem to hit their stride in a way that the rest of the season never could. It's like everyone finally learned how to walk in their platform shoes, bell-bottoms skimming purposefully over that sickly shag carpet. Romano gets more screen time and more backbone, becoming a sympathetic stand-in that we can care about and root for. Wavering relationships are given sharp definition and sideline cast members get to make real, bold, purposeful decisions. Richie Finestra is finally allowed to become the enemy, the anti-hero he's made himself, and we are forgiven for wanting him to fail.

A glam rock makeover is exactly the sort of rebranding Vinyl benefits from in its last few episodes. You can imagine the series Vinyl's creators envisioned: a seedy, greedy, gritty glimpse into the underbelly of 70s rock. The first half of the season is too hollow and flashy to achieve Boardwalk's haunting subtleties, its cast is too nebbish and needy to be Goodfellas. But when you dress it up, when you put a little glitter on it, when Vinyl starts to embrace its flamboyance, its garishness, its gyrating sexiness, its cabaret campiness, it's transformed. And like Xavier and Ziggy and Iggy and Lou and all the glam greats, it finds a new persona where it can really start to perform.

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