Vinyl Season Finale Review “Alibi”: The Needle and the Damage Done

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On the season finale of “Vinyl,” things went out much as they came in: with a bang. Only this time, that bullet almost had Richie’s name on it- to say nothing of the rabble-rousing Zak (Ray Romano)- and it wasn’t necessarily the number one single Richie (Bobby Cannavale) would have preferred, that’s for sure. On the plus side, at least this time the concert hall remained intact, if not the band.

In “Alibi,” the first wild-and-wooly (bully) season came to a close and much like a good album, it brought things to a close in a way that bookended the story as a whole, bringing things around full circle. By now, you’ve likely heard that the show managed to eke out a second season, despite middling praise and some behind-the-scenes shake-ups, not unlike what happened on the show itself.

As with Richie having to resort to going to the local mob boss for financial support, “Vinyl” had to lean on HBO to survive its own transition, and sadly, in the process, it lost one of its main creators, Terence Winter. It’s an unfortunate occurrence, and also a bit of a surprising one, given the network’s storied history with Winter, who also executive-produced two of its biggest and most critically-acclaimed hits, “The Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire.”

Winter will be replaced by a new show-runner, Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) and Max Borenstein (TV’s “Minority Report”) will come aboard as a new executive producer, though the legendary Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese will continue their involvement. What exactly this means for the tone of the show remains to be seen, but it’s clear that when “Vinyl” does return, it will likely be a wholly different sort of animal.

I can certainly see where HBO might want to smooth out some of the rougher edges of the show, given its relentlessly dark, borderline nihilistic approach, which was likely a bit much for some viewers, though nothing if not true to the oft-dark underbelly of the era, what with the extreme proliferation of cocaine and heroin on the scene back then.

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Lest we forget- not that we could, really- the main character, Richie, is a raging addict so given to flying off the rails he actually hallucinated a best friend for a good chunk of time there, and another main character, Kip (James Jagger, son of Mick, in a solid turn) nearly OD’d before his big break before being brought back, much like the fictional version of “Pink Floyd” in “The Wall” in the “Comfortably Numb” sequence and all but tossed onto the stage.

But it’s not as if the show didn’t have its more light-hearted and fun moments, from a highly-amusing bit of trolling from Alice Cooper (Dustin Ingram), involving the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Clark (Jack Quaid, who just got better and better as the show progressed) in “Whispered Secrets” to a nifty exploration of Vegas-era Elvis (professional impersonator Shawn Wayne Klush) in “The King & I,” easily one of the best and most riveting episodes of the show.

While the celebrity cameos didn’t always work, admittedly, when they did, they worked well, as in the aforementioned instances, and one of my favorite things about the show was how it showed the wide swath of different types of music at the time, even if “Vinyl” could lay it on a bit thick in terms of everyone seeming to be at the right place at the right time.

For instance, there was Richie “discovering” Punk and Hip-Hop before they were really even a thing yet and Clark seemingly single-handedly starting the Disco movement. Hell, even the mob guy Maury Gold (Paul Ben-Victor) correctly identifies that 50’s doo-wop type music is about to make a big comeback, a la the soon-to-be huge “Grease.” To say nothing of Richie just happening to frequent the club that would become CBGB’s in the finale!

That said, the soundtrack was full-on brilliant, easily treading the line between wonderful obscurities of the time and the oft-maudlin hits of the era, just before the shake-up that music would go through with the arrival in earnest of Punk and Hip-Hop in the late 70’s. You can see both the greatness the early 70’s had to offer and why those latter movements needed to happen in one fell swoop on any given episode, and that’s exactly what you want in a show like this, where hindsight is definitely 20/20.

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So, while this first season was hardly perfect, to say the least, it at least got the music right, which is crucial on a music-driven show like this one, and the least you could ask for, given the premise. That great scene in the finale at the New York Dolls, where the band was arrested on stage, Jim Morrison-style? That was a pure rock ‘n’ roll moment right there and brilliantly done, not in the least as it was essentially done as a publicity stunt, which was a great touch.

However, where “Vinyl” dropped the ball more was in consistency, particularly in terms of the female characters. For instance, the excellent Juno Temple’s portrayal of Jamie Vine started out as one of the show’s strongest characters- a driven, true-to-herself-and-her-ideals modern woman looking to make a name for herself on her own in an ego-centric, male-dominated business, before being reduced to a glorified groupie towards the end of the season, to the point of having a three-way with two of the band members of the group she helped succeed.

True, you could say that it was an honest decision made in the moment on her part and that it wouldn’t do to slut-shame the girl for taking advantage of an opportunity, and I’m not. Absolutely, she had every right to have fun and explore her own sexuality in a time when such things were the norm, if anything.

But the show did sort of fail the character, in terms of how strong she started out, IMHO, which is a disservice to the strong work on Temple’s part. In the next season, I’d really like to see “Vinyl” pick up the threads of her more career-driven attitude, with Jamie picking herself up after this minor setback and forging ahead, more committed than ever, and this time, not letting the sexual mores of the time get to her.

Or, at the very least, to have her address them directly, by saying something along the lines “You men do this sort of thing all the time- why can’t I do it?” which would be absolutely true. I get that sexism was rampant at the time, but you know, address that in the show itself, much like “Mad Men” did before it. With some careful tweaking, this show could easily be just as good as any HBO critical darling, I think.

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In fact, I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but it could even lose the whole undercover Richie gambit altogether and I wouldn’t complain at all. Granted, I thought the pilot was one of the best things director/producer Martin Scorsese has done in ages, and a large part of that was the whole crime drama antics going on. But now that the matter has been addressed and it’s clear that Richie knows how to work the system to his benefit, it could simply go away next season and I’d be fine with that. After all, it’s nothing we haven’t seen a billion times before.

Besides, why bury the lead? This is a show about the music business in a time in which hedonism and bad behavior were the absolute norm, long before Giuliani Disney-fied New York City and it was still gritty, real, and alive. There’s your show. That’s all you need right there. Hell, the music business was basically its own mob at the time, you know? You don’t need the real deal.

So, we could easily lose all that mob stuff and focus exclusively on the rise- and potential fall later on- of Alibi records and I’d be fine with that. To me, the show was at its best when it was dealing with that stuff anyway. I just loved all of the music insider in-jokes and the way the show integrated real occurrences with invented ones.

Although the whole “musical fantasy” sequences gambit didn’t always work, the rest of it did for me, in terms of the way the show interacted with the reality of the times and actual events, even if it was a bit on the nose at times. But when it did work, as in the stuff involving Andy Warhol (John Cameron Mitchell) and the Factory, it worked like gangbusters.

Speaking of that subplot, big props as well to Olivia Wilde- also a great example of the show getting the female character right I should have mentioned a minute ago. Unlike Temple’s character, with Devon, we got to see a woman learning to survive on her own on her own terms and refusing to kowtow to the men in her life, consequences be damned.

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Devon didn’t always do the right thing- the character made some messy decisions and wasn’t always the greatest mother- but it felt real and fully realized by Wilde in a fantastic turn. Of course, her character is older and wiser than Temple’s so that may be the point- sometimes you have to learn these things the hard way.

All in all, though, this really is a show worth saving, and I genuinely hope more people give it a chance next season and that the new show-runner finds a way to stay true to the established things that work while jettisoning the things that don’t. I think that once the show settles in, it could be as great as any of the excellent HBO dramas that preceded it, easily. Like a good record, “Vinyl” just needs to find the groove.

What did you think of the first season of “Vinyl”? What did you like most about it? What did you dislike most about it? Who was your favorite character? How about your least favorite? How did you feel about the portrayal of women on the show? Did it feel accurate to you or could it have been better? What would you like to see happen in the second season? How do you think the show could best improve moving forward? What did you think about the ousting of Winter? Was it a smart move or a bad one on HBO’s part?

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Sound off down below, and see you next season, hopefully!