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Vinyl (HBO), Unicorns, and the NYT

Vinyl (HBO), Unicorns, and the NYT

There are a large number of Vinyl "haters" writing critical articles about the show.

I will talk about (and respond to) most of the criticism in a second (this article is intended as a defense of Vinyl against its critics). But first, some other business.

I have spent a great deal of time writing articles about Vinyl (HBO) so far this year (apologies). My usual process goes like this - rush home on Sunday nights to watch each episode twice and then run to the coffee house to work until about 5 a.m. writing my recaps. 

As time has passed, I have interacted back and forth with some of the "paid re-cappers" (commiserating mostly). During these interactions, I found out that many of them (hell, maybe all of them, get episodes sent to them in advance by HBO). 

I want to take this moment to protest and beg HBO to be kind enough to do the same for me (right I know, I am not important enough etc. just expressing my jealousy). Feel free to protest to @HBO on my behalf too (it won't work, but should be fun).

Magical Unicorns

By far the most prominent criticism of Vinyl is that Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) is too much of the typical white male television anti-hero.

He is, in other words,  too addicted, sexist, racist, and awful to be an acceptable lead character. "Oh no," they write, "not another Don Draper." Or, "Haven's we seen this before?"

Vinyl tells the story of a successful record executive in 1970's New York City.  I don't know this 100% for sure, but I am guessing most record executives in NYC in the 1970's were:

* Male

* White

* Sexist

* Maybe also racist (given how much appropriation happened)

Were you expecting a magical unicorn instead? 

If Richie had been a well-adjusted and progressively-intentioned white male everyone would have called Vinyl an apologist fantasy.

Maybe there was a record executive at some independent small 70's label that they could have centered the series around. But I believe they wanted to explore the revolution in music in the 1970's through the lens of an industry insider for a number of good reasons:

* It parallels the industry today (the consolidation at American Century Records was forced by economic realities just like labels face today). I have long contended that they are making an argument about what shitty choices labels have made in the face of digital downloads etc.

* The industry had a terrible secret at its core, it was built on the exploitation of artists (particularly artists of color). By having the main character literally be up to his elbows in guilt for this sin you can expose the history of Rock and Roll in a way that has not been done on television before. Just a few weeks ago, a video collection called "the History of Rock and Roll was viral online and involved only white artists. That is INSANE.

* It allows the figures in the show to interact with historical figures in music. I agree that this has not been done as successfully as perhaps it could have been. But allowing figures like Alice Cooper, David Bowie, The Velvet Underground, and Johnny Thunders to interact with the characters it creates reference points for the audience.

* The record industry and 70's Rock and Roll WAS sexist, racist, and full of obscene excess. If you didn't tell this story, what story are you telling? In order to expose what happened and why it was fucked up, you have to ground the show in the awfulness. Maybe it is a failure of my own imagination (very possible) but I don't get why you would want to avoid these truths.

I am just having a hard time understanding how the writers were supposed to make Richie heroic without being guilty of being ahistorical and/or avoiding the sad truths at the heart of 70's Rock and Roll.

The problem with historical dramas, most people with power in history sucked at being human beings. There is a difference between the main character being racist and sexist and the show celebrating that racism and sexism. Vinyl is unique in that it has no problem allowing Richie to look bad.

In fact, one of the main criticism of characters like Don Draper and Walter White was that they were too likable (in the face of their terrible deeds). In other words, they were too hero and not enough anti.

Richie is much more anti than he is a hero. I have argued before that his role is to be a stand-in for all the sins of the record industry. He is not those characters precisely because his role is not to ultimately be identified with. I would even argue that if you are supposed to identify with anyone in the show it is Devon (Olivia Wilde) or Lester (Ato Essandoh), Zak (Ray Romano), or Jamie (Juno Temple).

Richie is the focal point of an exorcism, of an exposing of the truth, of a clearing of the decks. Richie is the agent of exposition for telling the world the straight dope from Mick Jagger's mind and memories. 

Yes, I am arguing that Richie is not a protagonist, he is a "central antagonist."

At the very least, the show isn't interested in making his character look good at the expense of the truth.

People wanted to be Don Draper (even the people who hated him on the show were in his thrall). People wanted to be Walter White (he allowed people to live out the secret dream of being the bad guy with no cost). Nobody wants to be Richie.

And that is a good thing, he is a bad person at rock bottom. He is a murderer (or attempted murder since someone argued with me about if it was Richie or Joe that landed the fatal blow on Frank "Buck" Rogers), a relapsed drug addict, a terrible husband, a terrible friend, a racist, and a sexist.

For once, a network isn't romanticizing bad behavior. They are providing context and explanation but not excuses. They are allowing Richie to just be bad.

Candy Canes On Unicorns

The second set of criticisms I have seen relate to how the women characters are written and about how hard it is to watch the things that they have been forced to endure.

I will admit that it has been hard to watch the way Devon (Olivia Wilde), CeCe (Susan Heyward), and Jamie (Juno Temple) have at times been treated. Again, I suspect this was fairly true to the experience of many (if not most) women in the record industry in the 70's.

Actually, after reading Kim Gordon's excellent book (and quite a few from other women in music) I am virtually certain Vinyl is exposing some truth here since it was apparently just as ugly a decade later in "good old" NYC.  I am not so sure it is that much better today if internet responses are any indication. 

It is very sad to me that by far the most press I have seen about Vinyl was about Olivia Wilde doing the nude scene last week. Ms. Wilde has done some amazing acting on this show with a really tough character, but she gets media attention mostly for doing a nude scene? 

Do a quick Google News search right now for "Olivia Wilde" and see what results are returned (you will also see articles about some controversial PSA she did recently). As the Daily Caller said, "Olivia Wild sent the internet into a tailspin" when she "stripped down." 

Apparently we are all (and the news media appears to be) 14 years old still.

I guess I have the same defense here, I would prefer people be uncomfortable facing the truth then comfortable being told a lie. 

I don't want magical unicorns. or candy canes on my period dramas. I just don't want the sexism to be purely exploitative. To my sensibilities, the Olivia Wilde nude scene that sent the net into a tailspin had much less narrative justification than did the sexism in the rest of the show (to date).

Shrill Responses?

One critic has been particularly insistent that:

"Even by the shoddy standards of prestige cable drama, Vinyl has a problem with women. The show has shortchanged its female characters since episode one, and in this week's "He in Racist Fire," it becomes blatantly obvious how badly Vinyl's writers have blundered. There's still a lot about this show that works just fine: the performances, the milieu, the dialogue, and the music. But all along, there's been a troubling uniformity of tone, evident in the way women are presented over and over again as shrill, petty, and pitiless."

Noel Murray feels that Devon is stuck in a "hectoring wife" story arc. I find this pretty misleading, she is clearly not Betty Draper. When we first meet Devon she is in love with her husband, then shocked by his return to drug use, then angry about his abandonment and betrayal, then she sacrifices for him, then she tries to shock him back to his senses (or to what she loved about him), finally, she realizes that the man she loves is gone and she packs her stuff and leaves.

Devon isn't trapped in the ambitions and dreams tied to her husband's power and wealth like Carmela Soprano was. I am honestly shocked by this criticism because what we have seen in Devon is a character who is constantly adjusting and experimenting and feeling. Devon has been angry, loving, and willing to make her own decisions throughout the entire series so far.

Murray also mentions Andrea "Andy" Zito (Annie Parisse) for some reason, presumably because she goes back to work with Richie despite having been used by him before. I seem to remember her wanting an ownership stake, insisting on certain agreements in writing, and a number of scenes making her seem too competent and powerful to be run over by Richie. 

Next up is CeCe, Murray concludes that she has been given nothing to do aside from be a "honey-trap." I don't believe the question is what she has been allowed to do or encouraged to do by Richie (100% awful). The question should be how the character reacts to the treatment (it is a 1970's record label run by a band of sexists). IMHO CeCe has been anything but compliant, and I suspect she will have much to say before this is all over. Just the look she gave Richie when he tried to take advantage in Hannibal's hotel room suggests she is not a willing or pliable victim. She certainly has not been "shrill."

Murray next turns his anger on Jamie's Mom (Lena Olin) for being angry in her two scenes. I kind of remember her being disappointed in her daughter for not wanting to take over the family (or her) business or reach her true potential. She did seem grim, but hardly shrill. Would it be better if it had been a Father holocaust survivor? I think this analysis of Jamie's Mom is a bit premature at best.

Oddly enough, Murray entirely leaves Jamie Vine out of his criticism. Juno's Jamie has been a lot like Wilde's Devon in that she constantly adapts and shifts to whatever faces her. I have mostly complained about her comparative lack of screen time more than anything else. I certainly have not found her to be a "shrill" character or to be a typical female archetypal character.

I don't want to sound unduly critical of Murray who writes more thoughtful recaps than most of the people I have read. But, I do disagree with him on this criticism. I do also think it is odd that the heart of the criticism is that women treated horribly should not be "shrill" in response to that horrible treatment.  

Last But Not Least: The New York Times

When I make a recap error a few hundred people think I am an idiot when the New York Times makes a mistake they can kill (or at least affect) viewership for a new show. 

I grew up in NYC, the Times will always be the "paper of record" to me. I believe they have a responsibility to be careful. Sadly, Gavin Edwards has been messy in his recaps (to say the least). After episode 6 he wrote that Ernst had never been on the show before.

If you look at the recap now, you will notice it has been corrected (I commented the same night after  it was published and now POOF all fixed).  He, again IMHO has been very sloppy consistently throughout his recaps. In Episode 5 he either entirely missed or failed to mention that Richie's apparent racism is mired in the revelation that he is himself a mixed-race person "passing" as white.  

I made the criticism in response to the Episode 6 review that Mr. Edwards has been very careless and dismissive throughout his recaps. I will 100% concede that Mr. Edwards is a much better writer than me (he also writes for Rolling Stone), but I would like for him to be more careful.

Here is the NYT admission of the mistake:

"An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the character Ernst’s appearance. He was in an earlier episode; Sunday’s episode was not his first appearance in the show)."

Not sure, but shouldn't that be "on" the show?

Of course, the NYT did not write me to thank me (sigh).

Well, that is all I have to say tonight, I already wrote a set of reasons I think the show is important - you can read that article here - so, I do not feel I need to replicate that again.

Thanks for all the support, and don't forget to write @HBO or @vinylHBO a Tweet or two on my behalf. Thanks for all the support for my recaps!

What are your criticisms of Vinyl (HBO)? Do you agree with my defense of the show? Do you prefer magical unicorns? I would love to hear your opinion, leave a comment!

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