Why did Scorsese's Vinyl fail?

If you’re like me, stuck in the wrong era, and longing for the times you could see Pink Floyd and Supertramp live, you were probably also heartbroken when the HBO series Vinyl was cancelled.

When Vinyl was announced, I was overwhelmed: Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, HBO, a period piece set in the 1970s guaranteeing an incredible soundtrack, and Terence Winter, the showrunner of Boardwalk Empire. What more could you ask for?

But Scorsese’s TV experiment didn’t work. While I loved Vinyl for the music and the era, most people did not share my opinion, and HBO certainly did not. Perhaps the series was cliché and overdone. But it was also very difficult to salvage what was left of Scorsese’s two-hour pilot/epic, full of self-pastiche and recycled ideas. In a way, that pilot, while impressive, was a copy of Goodfellas set in the music business, which felt like a disappointment coming from the Academy Award-winning director. The easy explanation for this is that auteurs always exploit the same ideas over and over again, in an obsession to get their approach right this time. For Scorsese, this is the fight of the individual clashing against the system or their community (just look at Mean Streets, The Aviator, The King of Comedy, or more recently The Wolf of Wall Street), transposed into different industries or cultures. But in this case, Scorsese’s approach resulted in an impromptu and violent murder backstory that felt completely out-of-place in a music-driven plot. Why involve a complicated and threatening murder story that doesn’t do anything to advance either the plot or character development? To a certain extent, it even feels forced on Scorsese’s hyper-violent side.

Furthermore, the Vinyl pilot struggles with its use of magical realism, something not previously seen in Scorsese’s work. For example, the main character, Richie Finnestra, played by Bobby Cannavale, survives a building collapses at the end of the pilot. Even though that was based on real-life events, it legitimizes an otherwise surreal occurrence, leaving the audience wanting more (or less, really). The fact that something like this happens in the pilot and is then never really picked up in the rest of the series undermines the credibility of Scorsese’s creative choices, along with his relationship with HBO and showrunner Terrence Winter. It presupposes a discrepancy in the story and its development that is not representative of the best television HBO has to offer. It also makes you wonder of the importance of Jagger and Scorsese as executive producers: non-TV people making TV in a bold way (but not necessarily in the boldest way either) seems unprofessional, inexperienced and undeserving of critical recognition.

Plot-wise, Vinyl is also a bit weak: everything that involves story and structure has been done before, particularly on Mad Men, and to a lesser extent in gangster films and music biopics – but perhaps that is always the case for stories about male-driven industries at a time when women did not have as much of a voice. Perhaps that is also the case for stories about drug addicts involved in mafia, or about the music industry.

But there are many good things in Vinyl, and I did not plan to write an incendiary article about a show that I love. The acting, the music and the recreated world were all on point, leaving very little to the imagination, but instead leaving us day-dreaming about cooler times (can you tell I’m biased?). Whether it was cameos from artists of the era or the music video interruptions, the show managed to plunge the audience into the 1970s: raw, disturbing, groovy, enchanting. Even if you dislike the futile plot points followed by botched resolutions, even if you don’t need it, Vinyl will transport you into a sort of musical drug-crazed trance you can never stop.