HBO’s much anticipated, heavily hyped new series Vinyl premiered last night, and I liked it a lot, with reservations. It’s also weirdly familiar. In fact, I’ve seen the first few episodes; by midway through the pilot episode, I couldn’t stop comparing it to Mad Men. Echoes of the Matthew Weiner series kept popping up all over Vinyl, and so I began cataloging them.
It’s through these comparisons that I’ll also review Vinyl.
1. The Same School of Writing — Martin Scorsese produces Vinyl and, of course, he also produced The Sopranos, which was run by David Chase. In that writers’ room, however, were Terrence Winter and Matthew Weiner. Weiner would go on to make Mad Men and Winter would run Boardwalk Empire, but both have similar structural styles, take advantage of large ensemble casts, and ostensibly center around one man. The Sopranos influence on Boardwalk and Mad Men continues on in Vinyl (which is run by Terrence Winter) and I’m frankly surprised that Weiner hasn’t already been brought in to write an episode or two because the period details, the storytelling, and the sense of humor are very Mad Men. In fact, Bob Shaw — the production designer on The Sopranos, Boardwalk and the Mad Men pilot — also serves as production designer on Vinyl.
2. Richie Finestra/Don Draper — The Bobby Cannavale lead character also has shades of both Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson and Mad Men’s Don Draper, but he’s more Draper than Nucky. He’s more prone to emotional outbursts compared to Draper’s more stoic character, but Finestra is also a hard-drinking, heavy-smoking creative type with a lot of emotional baggage and a secret. While Draper’s secret was that he had stolen another man’s identity, Finestra’s secret is that he’d stolen another man’s life after he killed a colleague and hid his body, a homicide that police are currently investigating. (Both shows also employ flashbacks to fill in the details of their pasts).
3. Devon Finestra/Betty Draper — Where Betty Draper gave up a career in modeling to settle down in suburbia to raise children and be put upon by Don Draper, Devon Finestra (Olivia Wilde) gave up her life as one of Andy Warhol’s hangers-on to settle down in suburbia and raise children. Wilde’s character, so far, is slightly more dynamic and supportive of her husband, but it’s only a matter of time before Richie is sleeping around on her. On the flip side, she’ll probably be sleeping around on him, too (perhaps, even, with another woman).
4. Jamie Vine/Peggy Olsen — A female secretary with larger aspirations, working her way up the ladder in an industry dominated by men perfectly fits both of these characters. Peggy, of course, went from secretary to copywriter, while Jamie (Juno Temple) is moving from a secretary/procurer of drugs to an A&R rep. Peggy slept with Pete, while Jamie has her eyes on a potential client/rock star. The question is, will Jamie and Richie become platonic confidantes, as well?
5. Record Industry/Advertising — As far as storytelling devices, both of these occupations serve similar functions. Don Draper pitched ads. Richie Finestra pitches bands. Both involve a form of marketing, and both often require conference rooms full of people listening to pitches, and both can go awry if the wrong choice of words are used.
6. Pete Campbell — Honestly, I’m not sure which character fits the Pete Campbell mold best. Is it Max Casella’s Julie Silver (my favorite character, so far), an A&R rep, who also worships/brown noses Richie?
Or is it the bumbling Scott Levitt (P.J. Byrne), the weaselly company lawyer, who is always sticking his foot his mouth?
7. Ted Chaugh/Skip Fontaine — I can’t even look at this guy:
without thinking of this guy:
They also serve similar functions in the series: Bland lackeys most interested in toeing the company line and selling out.
8. Zak Yankovich/Roger Sterling — The personalities of the characters played by Ray Romano and John Slattery are distinct, but I suspect they’ll serve the same function. Yankovich is a partner and close friend of Richie, who is miserable in his marriage with a woman his own age. Like Sterling, he also has a daughter who owns him. How long before Yankovich is shacked up with his much younger secretary, like Sterling? I give it six episodes.
9. Both Shows Mix Fact and Fiction — Mad Men weaved into its fictional storylines real-life historical events, real clients, and real advertising pitches. Likewise, Vinyl weaves into its storyline real-life historical events, real musicians, and real record labels. Often in Vinyl, it’s hard to tell what is real and what is fiction without looking it up.
10. The Music — Both shows use a lot of period-specific music, although Weiner was more selective and his choices were more attuned to what was going on during the scene. Vinyl’s use of music is more akin to Treme: It’s like another character in the series, but it’s also overwhelming and occasionally slows down the momentum of the story. Musical accompaniment is nice; musical interludes can try viewers’ patience.
11. Slow First Seasons — Mad Men was good during its first season, but it didn’t completely figure out what it was until the second season. The first season often got weighed down by details and the story often took priority over character.
This is what’s happening with Vinyl, so far: There’s an enormous potential in the characters, but Scorsese and Winter are still too preoccupied with some of the details, the music, and a story that’s driving the characters instead of the other way around. It makes it difficult to get attached to the characters, who have yet to break out of their archetypes.
There’s too much talent and potential in this series, however, for it not to eventually find its footing, and the record industry in the 70s is ripe with storylines to exploit. It’s a good series now, but it has the potential to be another Mad Men or, just short of that, at least another Boardwalk Empire.