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Review: ‘Vinyl’ is a cocaine-era ‘Mad Men’ that could hit the same highs

Few periods of American history personify excess like the 1970s. Flamboyance colored every piece of media — from the fashion, to the drama, to the music. Vinyl, the latest from Boardwalk Empire creators Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese, takes this mirror-ball era and focuses in on the gears that kept it turning. 

Set in 1973, Vinyl is a dramatization of the record industry at its most powerful state. Bobby Cannavale (Boardwalk Empire) plays Richie Finestra, the self-destructive CEO of American Century. He’s the patriarch of a label on the decline, struggling to find the future in a constantly changing landscape. Richie is the soul of Vinyl, a larger than-life personality with hidden sensitivity. The pilot does a wonderful job of establishing this character’s arc and even betraying audience expectations for what a TV protagonist needs to be. 

The pilot for Vinyl clocks in at just under two hours, a feature-length epic directed by Scorsese himself. His iconic visual style is working overtime, subtly conveying all of the drama in even the most mundane character interactions. The recreation of ’70s NYC is astonishingly detailed, right down to the legendary songs that score the episode. It’s a production as luxurious as the world it portrays.

When working within such an iconic period, it’d be easy for Vinyl to fall into a trap of hero worship. Fortunately, it uses a blend of reality and fiction to craft a drama that is both novel and familiar. The central label, American Century, is fictional, but it hosts both real and invented artists. For the most part, the line is acceptably blurred – though like many contemporary period pieces, it can’t help but write scenes with impeccable foresight. (At one point Richie hears the first ABBA single and knows “within three bars that they’ll be filling stadiums.”)

Cannavale carries the pilot due to a supporting cast of characters that come off as immemorable. The supplementary staff of American Century contain all the archetypes that you’ve come to expect from this breed of workplace drama. You’ve got the ambitious secretary with her heart set on cracking into the boy’s club. There’s the awkward low-level executive who will inevitably be her love interest. Olivia Wilde seems largely wasted as Richie’s wife, giving a strong performance but remaining resigned to the background.  I will commend one secondary character of Vinyl – Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh), who has a stunning arc within the pilot and seems to be set up as a tremendous force within the world.

Even just one episode in, Vinyl is right at home among HBO’s long catalog of prestige dramas. It creates a vibrant world that sucks the viewer right in thanks to a commanding lead performance and eccentric production. While it’s unclear if the brightest spots of Vinyl will stick around for the full series, the pilot is worth your time. It’s a cocaine-era Mad Men that could prove to hit the same heights.

Follow Chris Berg on Twitter, @ChrisBerg25

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Chris Berg

Chris Berg