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'Vinyl' Is a Hell of a Guilty Pleasure

Is Vinyl a good show? Nah. But it's satisfying drama, and I enjoy it.
February 22, 2016, 5:00am
James Jagger as Kip Stevens. Photo by Macall B. Polay/courtesy of HBO

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Liking things ironically is, on general principle and by definition, a bullshit proposition. And one I've, since my early 20s, largely managed to avoid. I like what I like and I defend it, because I like it. Until now. Oh, Vinyl, you inarguably kind of suck, but I dig you. Maybe I'm a middlebrow motherfucker. Some people think Sonic Youth is high art and Juno was clever—I think Vinyl is a satisfying drama. The show is, if not my Waterloo, then my "Disco Duck." But it doesn't seem "so bad it's good"—it just seems bad, and I enjoy it.


Much has already been mocked of Vinyl's use of cocaine as raw ingredients for a ROCK 'N' ROLL MACHO MAN FRENZY vision quest, and the second episode is where the grist for that really takes flight. Record man Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), having survived the historically inaccurate collapse of the Mercer Arts Center totally on cocaine and whiskey, kills the sale of his label to the staid and massively unhip Germans and re-devotes himself to the fire god spirit of rock music. It's all very phoenix-like or at least like sitting in a basement green room, drinking the headliner's beer, while a phoenix talks your ear off about Raw Power. Not everyone's idea of fun, but I've had worse times.

Initial reviews aside, people seem to really dislike Vinyl. I understand this. I don't enjoy professional wrestling and the amount of sweaty manliness and improbable plot twists is commensurate. From Richie karate-chopping his business partners to a flashback of then-fiancée Devon (Olivia Wilde) giving Richie the inevitable slap before they fuck on a sink, Vinyl episode two skips the starter pistol and is off to the wacky races. While reminiscing about said sink-fucking (for extra fun, pretend Cannavale is reprising his role in Sex in the City as the dude with "funky spunk"), Devon forgets her kids at the diner. You can't put your arms around a memory and still be a good mom, apparently.

The main weakness of Vinyl, for me, remains the music. Which, as it's somewhat about music, is a bit of a problem. The music cues work, as music cues are designed to, and rarely feel like emotional cheats but, man, the rerecorded punk/pre-punk songs are woefully modern-sounding. They sound like the compressed post-grunge America was awash in after Nirvana. Like, people who have heard punk but have nice studios and love power chords more than, say, Robert Quine. I didn't even realize that the Nasty Bits' songs were rerecorded songs originally by underappreciated but not that underappreciated band Jack Ruby, because the Nasty Bits, though supposedly terrible, are actually perfectly passible pub-punk. And, despite the heroin (!) and fisticuffs (!), they don't seem all that dangerous. They seem like what makes up so much of punk music—and rock, in general—an acceptable second-on-the-bill on a Wednesday night at CB's. It's one thing to care about a nascent Dead Boys; it's another thing entirely to be emotionally invested in Slaughter and the Dogs or, worse, the Goo Goo Dolls as Williamsburg indie rockers fronted by a pissy, pretty Englishman played by the son of Mick Jagger.


Still, the acting remains solid. Ray Romano, as Richie's hapless and put-upon partner, continues to be a pleasure to watch. He may seem to be in a particularly dark episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but it's still delightful to watch him existentialize his way through preparations for an overpriced Bat Mitzvah as his financial world collapses. John Cameron Mitchell plays Andy Warhol and does us all the favor of making Warhol seem actually likable and odd rather than the freakish elf he's portrayed as in most rock movies. Seeing Warhol show some of the charisma that would have been necessary to inspire sycophantic behavior is a refreshing change from the usual unpleasant caricature.

'Vinyl.' Photo by Macall B. Polay/courtesy of HBO

Not much actually happens in the second episode besides coke freak-outs and husbands exploring the spectrum of alpha-to-beta husband behavior, but I wouldn't say I was bored per se. Largely, I found this episode soothing after the hectic first one, not unlike the relief one feels when a crazy and wild and fun friend cancels plans.

Is Vinyl a good show? Nah. To enjoy something ironically is necessarily alienating, and I hope it remains so. I don't want to go through life archly enjoying over the top dramas like some third-rate John Waters wannabe, yelling up is down, a dog is a cat, the hideous is cute if you look at it right and vice versa. God willing, Vinyl will be my sole guilty pleasure. But, for now, I'm into it. I enjoy being pedantic about the music and I enjoy rolling my eyes at the drugs and sex and hagiography. Of course I'm not proud of being enthusiastic in the incorrect way about art so earnestly made. But I can also believe that series creators Scorsese, Jagger, Cohen, and Winter know this shit is pretty funny. Hell, maybe they do and the joke is on me, on all of us. Maybe this is all campy, wry commentary on the rockism and the mythologizing of popular music and young(ish) men's libido. In which case I'll change my mind probably and stop pushing the show. After all, nobody likes being laughed at.

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Vinyl airs on Sundays at 9 PM on HBO.