What story is “Vinyl” trying to tell?

Quick Answer: Vinyl has so much going on that it’s hard to determine what it sees as its purpose. A number of plotlines and curious execution make the show’s intent difficult to identify, but the ingredients are all in place for it to become something powerful.

Vinyl (2016-) is the B-side to Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter’s successful prohibition cosplay Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014), this time donning the period attire and attitudes of early 1970s New York, a world in which rock and roll has been established, gone mainstream, and is struggling to thrive in an exploding and complex musical landscape. The series focuses on American Century Records, a once-dominant label quickly falling into obscurity, and Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), the relapsing coke addict who heads the label. Richie struggles between artistic integrity and financial necessity, is married to a former Warhol Factory girl (Olivia Wilde), has a strong ear for music and an even stronger temper, and wades through a pile of daily moral and ethical complications because this is HBO, and Richie is a complex man.

Bobby Cannavale as Richie Finestra on Vinyl

The result is a series with a lot of faces: an exposé on the payola-ridden, number-fudging, intimidation-powered nature of the 1970s record business; a social commentary on the racial exploitation of black pioneers who created rock but were stripped of recognition; an office drama that plays like a music industry Mad Men complete with an explosive Don Draper and a go-getting Peggy Olsen to boot (here, Juno Temple’s drug-enabling secretary and A&R wannabe Jamie Vine); and a biopic of real and pseudo-real music icons unafraid of existing on camera as narrative necessities and little more than unncessary and inappropriate walk-on impersonators. We’re told Richie is the nicest guy in the record business and witness him showing concern over the future of laid off employees, but he spends his time abetting murders, snorting heaps of coke, and ignoring his family. (What does that say about his colleagues? Nothing good.) We see the construction of popular music as it became known and the conflict between art and commerce that fuels the entertainment industry, but mainly as it impacts Richie and his label— right from the start, in the heavily Scorsese-stylized pilot, Richie’s voiceover admits his memories come marred by “lost brain cells, self-aggrandizement and maybe a little bullshit.”

Critics have described the series as “more like a great party than a great TV show,” an execution “full of hackneyed motifs...that never sheds its air of leaden nostalgia,” something which visually “plays at times like Scorsese doing a cover band performance of himself,” and as a story from which “not a ton is gained in the retelling.” Yet most of those same voices recommend sticking with it and admit there is something oddly alluring about the material. “Maybe that’s what the rock ’n’ roll of the era was all about: the preening, destructive narcissism of front men,” writes Vanity Fair.

Bobby Cannavale

Instead of focusing the series on the highs and lows of a specific rock star, it shows us the highs and lows of the rock star behind the rock stars—the record exec who fuels everything for which a band is publicly known. And while that broadness may frequently give Vinyl’s image the thin appeal of going to the Hard Rock Cafe, where one’s time is spent admiring the glitz and glam hung on the walls and staring at the accolades of people who have grown into legend, it also allows for a series involving numerous artists and diverse storytelling potential. As The Verge writes, “One iconic band isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? Six seasons and a movie of iconic bands.”

But in taking that approach, a series has to know its goal. Watching Vinyl, a story is being told about a record company, artists and their influences on one another, a batch of people with cool names, a fresh punk band managed by a disrespected blues singer, and (in Scorsese style) an unnecessary murder subplot, among a milieu of other plots to the point where it’s uncertain what the series is trying to say. It is as expansive and excessive as something about the 1970s ought to be, yet not reigned in enough to have a definable purpose. Being that it has already been renewed for a second season, perhaps much of the first season is establishment. The series doesn’t glamorize the way black pioneers were screwed over in the construction of white rock, but hasn’t really punished anyone for it. The first season uses female objectivity and sexism as a piggish punchline for most of its episodes, but the injection of Andrea Zito (Annie Parisse) into American Century’s office starts to flip that on its head. There’s a feeling that Vinyl won’t get away with its superficialities forever and there is something bigger being told. The hope is that it stretches beyond the hackneyed “man discovering purity in a sour world” theme dominating the first season.

Olivia Wilde as Devon Finestra on Vinyl

Vanity Fair suggests a tighter focused series about Devon would be a great idea, detailing the regret and struggle of a Warhol it-girl navigating suburbia and married life. Or one of Jamie the secretary struggling to make a name for herself in a man’s world. Technically, Vinyl is both of those things, along with 100 others. Making them all worthwhile and paying them enough mind is its writing staff’s biggest challenge.

But perhaps the tour-de-’70s approach is exactly what a show this grand in scope needs to succeed. Maybe the costumes and gold records hanging on the walls are enough to keep viewers hooked—a Where’s Waldo of “who will they meet next?” or “what popular musician are they alluding to here?” may prove exactly the right means of driving American Century’s story. A number of characters currently exist for seemingly little reason—Jack Quaid’s Clark Morelle perhaps most of all—that it may be feasible to see the ultimate story through the subtext of season one: It takes a lot of “little people” to make the big guys at a record label (and any other huge business) look as good as they do. From the underappreciated Zak Yankovich (Ray Romano) to people like Clark and Jamie, perhaps this isn’t Richie’s story any more than the others. He may just be the loudest character.