What could go wrong?
Everything, as it turned out. HBO on Wednesday abruptly announced it was axing the series, despite having given it a Season 2 renewal earlier this year. “Obviously, this was not an easy decision,” the network wrote in a statement Wednesday, skirting the issue of exactly how executives came to that pass.
For HBO, this was probably the biggest black eye since “Luck,” the David Milch racehorse drama that collapsed in 2012 after a scandal over alleged mistreatment of the animals used during production. Of course, “Luck” would have had some if the ratings hadn’t been awful.
Same story for “Vinyl,” which was logging ratings well under the 1 million benchmark on nights that original episodes premiered. The “Vinyl” scratch comes just weeks after HBO ousted top programmer Michael Lombardo (Casey Bloys was named his replacement), and the show was already seen as Lombardo’s undoing even before the cancellation.
But there are larger takeaways as well for HBO, which desperately needs to find a new tentpole as its smash hit fantasy “Game of Thrones” approaches the end of days:
Dream teams don’t always deliver
The pairing of Scorsese and Jagger — two icons of 1970s filmmaking and music — sounded like a can’t-miss combination. But “Vinyl” had a very long gestation. Jagger first proposed the idea 20 years ago as a movie, but said later it was too “sprawling” to be told in just two hours. The project was finally set up at HBO in 2010 as a tale of ’70s wretched pop excess told through the eyes of troubled music exec Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) and his struggling record label. Scorsese directed the pilot and said he wanted to do more, but a busy movie career allowed little time for that. Showrunner Terence Winter, creator of “Boardwalk Empire,” bailed in April, replaced by Scott Z. Burns for the now-theoretical season 2. With “Vinyl,” HBO failed to abide by the rule that has led to critically acclaimed hits like “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad”: Ignore dream teams and go with writers who have an idea they really believe in. And that’s a reminder that …
In fact, it’s really the most important thing in scripted TV. And as a story, “Vinyl” was all over the place. Watch as Richie flies to Vegas to negotiate with Elvis Presley and Col. Tom Parker. Oh, there he is sweating out his involvement in a murder case. He certainly has his hands full dealing with the (fictional) punk band Nasty Bits. Richie was well-traveled in a way that allowed him to touch base with a ’70s superstar every week. But what was missing was a grand conceit that tied all these disparate scenes together. What was “Vinyl” even about?
Nostalgia alone won’t cut it
Viewers of “peak TV” are getting treated to a lot of ’60s and ’70s nostalgia right now, partly because those eras can now be viewed at some critical distance and partly because many of today’s couch potatoes recall those times fondly. That helps explain part of the allure of the 1960s crime drama “Aquarius” for NBC too. Dress some extras in love beads and fringed vests, cue “For What It’s Worth” and presto — drama! But to work, “Vinyl” needed to be about more than finding clever ways to insert John Lennon and Alice Cooper references into storylines. In more ways than one, “Vinyl” left HBO trapped in the past.