The emotional climax of Vinyl‘s first season is the performance of a fake punk band fronted by the son of Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall. Songs by the Stooges and the MC5 — bands that did the Nasty Bits’ pseudo-proto-punk better, and years before the fact, IRL — bookend it on the soundtrack. The New York Dolls watch from the side of the stage, beaming with approval even though their very real, and also superior, music kicked off the season by literally tearing the house down. The individual members of the Ramones are in the audience, apparently so impressed that they go out and form a band, the way the Sex Pistols’ 1976 gig in Manchester begat Joy Division, the Buzzcocks, the Fall, and the Smiths (and, uh, Simply Red). The concert ends when the police shut it down on obscenity charges, like a Jim Morrison reboot. It’s supposed to be the second coming of pure rock and roll and the salvation of American Century — excuse us, Alibi Records; instead, it comes off like a needle scratch.
The season finale of HBO’s enormous investment — tellingly titled “Alibi” — has its fair share of other problems as well. Prior to the Bits’ big concert, the whole “the boys in the band let a girl come between them” storyline the show had sidestepped so deftly with last week’s threesome (between Kip, Alex and A&R rep Jamie Vine) became a sinkhole into which the whole thing damn near collapsed. Casual sexism, shouting matches, a broken-hearted heroin overdose, one of those shots where someone gets revived from an OD and bolts upright till their face nearly hits the camera — every cliché in the songbook got trotted out.
The mafia subplot fared little better. At first it seemed it may have been headed somewhere interesting: Richie appears to be getting he heave-ho from the company courtesy of his royally, righteously pissed off partner Zak Yankovic, who brings the scheme to mob boss Corrado Galasso for the man’s blessing. Instead, the gangster heads straight to the label HQ and tips Finestra off to his underling’s betrayal, threatening poor hapless Zak — and giving the NYPD a juicy tip about his own illegal car-theft ring via their bug in the office — in the process. Someone’s gotta take the fall, and that someone just so happens to be Joe Corso, the goombah payola guy whose big mouth leads Galasso to believe he must have been the snitch.
Thus the main witness in that murder is conveniently eliminated, and Bobby Cannavale’s music mogul manages to escape the fate of Vinyl‘s showrunner Terence Winter, ousted from his own series before the first season even concluded. But it all feels awfully neat, and none of the cosa nostra stuff rises to the level of Winter’s previous efforts in the genre, Boardwalk Empire and the almighty Sopranos.
And then there’s Devon Finestra — actually, scratch that: Then there isn’t Devon Finestra. Richie’s estranged wife actually sits the entire season finale out, present only in the form of the photo she took of her husband’s guitar jutting out of their smashed television set, which is now the cover of the Nasty Bits’ debut album. As a symbol of how she repeatedly serves as the muse of various men while enjoying little recognition or success on her own, it’s perfect; as an emblem of how the show never seemed to know what to do with her but make her a glamorous design element, it’s a little too perfect. It certainly doesn’t sit well with the casual misogyny of the Bits’ leadoff single, a crass rewrite of Lester Grimes’ “Woman Like You” that involves — paraphrasing here — bending the song’s subject over and making a mess.
It’s a mess, alright. In setting up the Nasty Bits as the label’s rebirth and the finale’s centerpiece — rather than Gary/Xavier, Zak’s bar mitzvah Bowie, or the dance act Jorge and Clark pushed onto the charts — Vinyl is trying to have its punk-rock cake and eat it too. Even if the Bits were the best fake punk band ever to grace the screen, you simply can’t capture the scene’s genuine subversiveness while simultaneously mythologizing it for the umpteenth time.
Is the moral of the story that the NYC punk scene was pretty cool? We’ve had 40 years of that knowledge being fed to us at every conceivable opportunity. Making Richie Finestra present at the moment Hilly Kristal decides to rename his bar CBGB does nothing to add to or enrich our understanding — let alone watching a bearded Max Casella spraypaint “FUCK THIS PLACE UP” on an office wall. Instead of giving us something new, Vinyl played us the greatest hits, and it’s hard not to be sick of hearing them.
Previously: You Sexy Thing