'Vinyl' Proves Not Even Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger Can Guarantee a Hit Show

The first episode of 'Vinyl,' a period drama about the rock music industry in the 1970s, had relatively lousy ratings, but that's not what HBO cares about.

Whenever a new TV series is launched, aimed at an unsuspecting public (if such a phenomenon still exists in our world full of “usual suspects”), a question lingers in the air all through its first season. It has nothing to do with its past (who did it), or present (WTF happens there, and why?), but its future – namely, will it be renewed for another season?

It matters more than you may think, and not just for the future prospects of the army of actors, writers, producers, etc. involved in the production. It may also be of some importance when you plan your own leisure schedule, i.e., if it isn’t going to be renewed for another season, there’s probably no need to invest your limited attention span on it to begin with – whereas if it’s here to stay for years and years to come, you’re better getting acquainted with how it all began. If nothing else, this will enable you to bemoan its (inevitable) decline in future seasons.

In the case of “Vinyl,” an American period drama about the rock music industry in the 1970s, that question – is it a series for one season, or for all seasons? – was answered even before the audience response to the debut episode stateside on February 14 was adequately assessed: HBO announced on February 18 that the series has been renewed for a second season of 10 episodes. (In Israel, the series airs on Yes Oh on Mondays at 4 A.M., concurrent with the U.S. screening, and with a rerun at 10 P.M.; it’s also available on Yes VOD.)

That renewal prompted many interesting questions in the minds of those who sat through the first episode, entitled, most originally, “Pilot” (all 108 minutes of it – making it feature movie length). But before those can be listed here, one should explain the noise about it (and there was a lot preceding it, and quite a lot during it).

The title, “Vinyl,” dates the period in which the series is set to those ancient times when we were getting our fix of popular music by purchasing black discs with grooves on them, made of “the organic radical or group CH2, which is equivalent to a molecule of ethylene with one hydrogen atom removed” (the chemical definition of “vinyl” in the OED). We then put the discs on a gramophone (also called phonograph), which consisted of a turntable and a stylus, which “translated” the grooves into sound.

In the prehistory of popular music, the 1970s – for many of us our youth; so much for the periodic table of our lives and drama – those discs came mainly in two sizes: the 7-inch single, revolving 45 times per minute; and the 12-inch, long-playing album (sometimes 10 inches), which revolved 33 and a third times per minute.

We are “streaming” our music nowadays, although some of the dinosaurs among us are still using, and collecting, CDs (compact discs, on which laser technology replaces the stylus). Those vinyl discs, meanwhile, are coming back into vogue as “retro,” with their charming “hisses” and “scratches,” which make you itch for the times when we were all younger, rougher and more hopeful.

Bobby Cannavale and Olivia Wilde in 'Vinyl.'
HBO / YES

Glam, sham, luck and talent

The series is not about the material on which discs were engraved, but rather, the spirit and sounds that were struggling to soar then (1970s) and there (mainly, but not only, the United States). “Vinyl” tells the story of fictional record executive Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), head of the label American Century, who knows he’s cruising on borrowed time and money, and is on the verge of selling out to a real European music conglomerate, PolyGram.

The fictitious American Century was once a thriving business, selling millions of singles and creating stars out of hopefuls, but it hasn’t had a hit in aeons. Richie is chasing his own tail in a volatile and fickle business full of glam, sham, luck, talent (rare, hard to find and nourish) and egos (most of them inflated with forbidden substances), and surrounded by an array of faithful assistants who hinder more than help. He has a beautiful wife, Devon (Olivia Wilde), two lovely children and a beautiful house in the Hamptons. But this is a facade that he knows full well is already crumbling.

All the while – and the first episode flashes back and forward – he is heavily addicted to cocaine and music, in equal measure. Indeed, the opening scene has him snorting a line while sitting in his car, ready to make the phone call that will lead to his ultimate unmaking, and then pricking up his ears to the sounds of rock music from a nearby joint and standing transfixed in a swaying crowd, irresistibly drawn to the beat, even when the ceiling collapses on him (literally – and this isn’t a spoiler, since there are at least another 19 episodes of the show to go. Besides, by the end of the episode he has risen up, Phoenix-like, from the ashes).

Much more than the show itself, “Vinyl” is the story of who’s behind it. And if the protagonist of the series and many of its characters are bit players, mere strands in the rich tapestry of sounds in the popular music industry of the 1970s (roughly, the time when rock went punk – and it has been said that the series conflates the musical timeline a bit, with punk belonging to the end of that decade), the show’s conceivers, writers, producers and directors are all heavy hitters in the TV, rock and movie industries.

One of them is Rich Cohen, a nonfiction writer who has penned and published books that had a lot to do with us here, and less to do with “Vinyl”: these include “Tough Jews” (1998), about Jewish gangsters in 1930s’ Brooklyn; and “Israel is Real: An Obsessive Quest to Understand the Jewish Nation and its History” (2009). The Rolling Stone contributing editor penned the original story, together with Mick Jagger of Rolling Stones fame (his son, James Jagger, plays a punk-star-to-be in the series) and Martin Scorsese, who really needs no introduction. Scorsese also directed the opening episode and will direct others.

However, it seems that while HBO is betting big on the series, it has even more aces up its sleeve: Series showrunner Terence Winter has to his humble credits HBO series “The Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire” (the latter with Scorsese). George Mastras, who cowrote the first episode with Winter, was one of the writers on “Breaking Bad.” And that, according to Julia Alexander on the Polygon site, is the reason why HBO ordered a second season for “Vinyl,” even if the first episode had relatively lousy ratings (for such a highly hyped series) of less than 800,000 in the United States: “HBO doesn’t care about ratings,” she wrote. “It doesn’t have to. HBO cares about three things: Awards, critical acclaim and, above all else, fostering exclusive relationships with some of the biggest talent in the industry.”

As for critical acclaim, it’s a bit too early to tell. But my favorite quote comes from Euan Ferguson in the U.K. daily The Guardian (and the Brits know a thing or two about how the dice rolls when it comes to rock): “So: self-indulgent and puerile and garish onanism, or a loving recreation of a time and a place and a music that mattered? Maddeningly, it’s both.”