Boasting a multi-million-dollar ad campaign, a cinematic first season that reportedly cost HBO $100 million and executive producers that included men who could reasonably be called the greatest filmmaker (Martin Scorsese), rock star (Mick Jagger) and TV impresario (Terence Winter) of the modern era, “Vinyl” was close to a “can’t miss” show as you could get.
On Wednesday (June 22), it became official: This can’t miss show did miss, by a lot [Insert record-scratch noise here].
What’s even more amazing is that the show’s cancellation was announced four months after HBO followed up its pilot by announcing with great fanfare that “Vinyl” would get a second season … which was then followed by nine additional subpar, ratings-challenged episodes that seemed to indicate anything but an upward trajectory.
Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it, so here are some lessons to be learned as the next “can’t miss” show steps over the bones of the ’70s record industry drama and prepares itself for the spotlight.
Don’t let your stars get upstaged
The first episode of “Vinyl” introduced us to series stars Bobby Cannavale, Olivia Wilde and Ray Romano … and then had them all blown out of the water by Andrew Dice Clay, of all people. Equal parts Ben Kingsley in “Sexy Beast,” Joe Pesci in “Goodfellas,” Thomas Jane in “Boogie Nights” and James Franco in “Spring Breakers,” Dice’s off-the-wall radio station mogul “Buck” Rogers never met something he wouldn’t snort, shoot, have sex with or utterly offend.
Spoiler alert: Dice died in the pilot, which left all the other characters looking decidedly vanilla. If HBO ever wants to take a sliver of the money that they had saved for “Vinyl” Season 2 and instead make a “Buck” Rogers prequel, that would be a show worth watching.
Women need personalities, too
Was there a single character on TV this year who failed the Bechdel Test worse than Olivia Wilde’s Devon Finestra? Every line, every scene, every action seemed to be reacting to her husband’s latest drug binge, irresponsible action or moment of neglect.
After a few episodes, “Vinyl” seemed to recast Devon as a Betty Draper-like suburban mother with a smile for the outside world, while hiding her deep-seeded issues — but then the character just became a carbon copy of January Jones’ far-better-written “Mad Men” character.
Ultimately, Devon seemed to be a blank slate that served as whatever the other characters needed her to be from scene to scene. Wilde, a solid actress, deserved better.
Where was Mick?
Want a recipe for the greatest show of all time? Take a roomful of talented writers, lock them in a room with Mick Jagger, and let him pull from the decades of rock and roll anecdotes that must be bouncing around in the brain of the man who has led The Rolling Stones since 1962. Change the names if necessary, re-work certain details if need be, but truth is stranger than fiction and Mick has partied with every rock god since the days of Chuck Berry.
Yet, over and over again, “Vinyl” headed down a plotline path that felt recycled at best and, at worst, simply uninteresting. If only one plot point was written without first asking Mick “Hey, do you have a better story than this?”, the opportunity was wasted. Heck, even Jon Bon Jovi has a better story involving Mick Jagger than anything Mick put in “Vinyl”:
If you can’t say anything nice about Juno Temple …
A lovely actress who has had lots of small roles in memorable movies over the years (“Killer Joe,” “Maleficent”), British-born Juno Temple may someday have a great lead performance ahead of her. But at some point, “Vinyl” seemed to pull a bait-and-switch on the audience, as if it realized that showing Bobby Cannavale snorting cocaine off every imaginable surface lost its shock value after the first dozen times.
Instead, “Vinyl” felt like it should have been called “Jamie,” because we were spending so much time with Temple’s A & R assistant telling a poor man’s Peggy Olson story. It’s hard working your way up in a male-powered, period drama set a few decades ago! How do you get men to treat you like a professional, when you find yourself in bed with them? Yawn.
Here’s hoping that someone writes a strong role for Temple in a project that doesn’t have to use her as a last resort, and gives her a more unique personality trait than her haircut.
How to get away with murder
If you’re making a show about gangsters, hit men or even cowboy robots, bloodshed is to be expected. But it’s a fact of reality that if you grabbed 100, 200 or even 300 people off the street and got them to answer honestly, you’d be unlikely to find anyone who’d ever committed or witnessed a murder; thankfully, it’s the sort of occurrence that most people will never be able to identify with because an overwhelming majority of human beings don’t kill people.
So, when you tune in to the very first episode of a show about record executives in the ’70s, you might expect a certain amount of drug use, sex and maybe even some violence. But when the main character is murdering someone, that’s called “reaching.” From the get-go, “Vinyl” became a show about a man trying to cover up a murder, rather than the record industry tell-all that was advertised. Sorry Richie, but when you killed Buck in the pilot, you also killed your own TV show.