Whether Vinyl wants to critique this dynamic by exposing the immense amounts of BS involved or just participate in it by reamplifying old legends isn’t ever clear, at least in the five episodes I’ve seen. Enjoying the series certainly seems to depend on your interest in being retold some of the most hoary tales in pop history; it depends on you actually being thrilled to hear from the folks who were at Woodstock, even though you’ve been hearing from them for decades.
Bobby Cannavale plays Richie, whose loutish exterior disguises an ear for talent and—I think we’re meant to genuinely believe—a special, gentle soul. In one scene, we’re told he’s the nicest guy in the record business; in another, he worries about the fate of potentially laid-off employees as his partners roll their eyes. A number of flashbacks work to demonstrate that the love between him and Devon (Olivia Wilde) is enduring and real. The rest of the time, he hoovers coke, commits shocking violence, and neglects his family. It’s HBO—he’s a complicated man, okay?
Richie’s record label, American Century, once commanded the charts but, after 20 years in an ever-more-saturated market, has hit upon hard times, to the point where rivals call it “American Cemetery.” A German conglomerate wants to buy it, to the initial delight of him and his partners, including Ray Romano’s wiseguy head of promotions Zak Yankovich. The plot really begins to move, though, once Richie reignites his passion for rock after stumbling into a New York Dolls concert so loud it causes the venue to collapse.
That collapse actually did happen in real life, and Richie’s coincidental attendance of it is one of many things that makes him feel like a classic-rock Forrest Gump, casually crossing paths with the most pivotal figures and events of the era. Mad Men was sometimes criticized for its exaggerated winks at real history, but that show’s engagement with its era was a masterwork of subtlety compared to Vinyl, which features scenes that literally consist of people reading from lists of famous names. To be fair, a hip record exec in 1973 New York City would have had lots of celebrity encounters, and the screenplay inoculates itself a bit with the acknowledgement that Richie’s making much of this stuff up.
The period specifics might even be the best reason to watch the show. If you get a kick out of seeing actors interpret Robert Plant, or Howlin’ Wolf, or Robert Goulet, or Kool Herc, then many kicks you shall have. Mick Jagger’s son James plays a proto-punk frontman whose band is, of course, told to get music lessons by an A&R square who just doesn’t get it. Scorsese is as stylish a documenter of rock as he’s ever been, though by now his techniques, like everything else in this show, won’t strike any viewer as novel. Perhaps the best thing about the cosplaying aspect of Vinyl is the reminder that the diverse proper nouns people think of as “the ’70s” really did exist at the same time, often in dialogue with each other. Bruce Lee, Andy Warhol, and Richard Nixon all made an impression on a nation listening to ABBA, Black Sabbath, and Grand Funk Railroad.