This recap contains a bunch of spoilers for the series premiere of the new HBO series Vinyl, so stop right here if you don’t want to know what happens. Definitely come back here and join us after you’ve seen the episode, though.
As we said in our series review, Vinyl is a deep and nuanced show filled with deep and nuanced characters, so while a two-hour premiere episode might seem like overkill (and it’s HBO, so we’re talking a true two hours), time actually goes by quickly and every second is important in establishing the universe the characters inhabit.
Speaking of time, the series premiere starts us in 1973, in a dark New York City, with our protagonist sitting in his car and not doing so well. Richie Finestra, played by Bobby Cannavale, is a whole lot of character to establish, but from the get-go, we learn that he works for a record company and would love to buy some cocaine. After seeing chaos in the streets directed towards a nearby club, he gets out of his car to find himself at a small concert by the then-unknown New York Dolls.
The episode then goes back and forth between the time of the opening scene and five days earlier, and as the show goes on, it is revealed that Finestra is trying to keep his record company, American Century, afloat by selling it to the German-owned PolyGram. However, the sale seems to hinge on Finestra signing Led Zeppelin, a deal that’s up in the air. That deal eventually falls through after unsuccessful encounters with the band and their management, mainly because tensions between Americans and Germans are still high following World War II and led Zeppelin’s people do not approve of their potential new bosses.
In the German board room, we’re introduced to Finestra’s team through a gritty voiceover monologue. The most significant member of the crew is Zak Yankovich (portrayed by Ray Romano), the head of promotions at American Century, meaning he dishes out tons of payola in the form of cash and nose candy to get the label’s songs on the air.
Later on, Finestra finds himself in a predominantly black neighborhood and hears what sounds like an early form of hip-hop music. This intrigues him, but he soon finds a gun in his face and realizes the venue is run by Lester Grimes, a former client. We learn through a series of flashbacks that Grimes used to be a singer managed by Finestra, only to have his career ruined when Finestra started his own label and left Grimes behind in an undesirable contract.
In an attempt to rekindle a severed relationship with chemically unstable radio station owner Frank “Buck” Rogers (played by Andrew Dice Clay), he and “independent promotion man” Joe Corso go on what ends up being a three-day bender with a largely incoherent Rogers. They wind up at his house watching old movies on a projector, and the emotionally imbalanced Rogers ends up pulling out a gun, at which point Finestra and Corso are left with no choice but to defend themselves and kill the man, bashing his head to a pulp and hiding the body at an abandoned building.
It’s soon after this point where the plot catches up to the opening scene: The police want Finestra for questioning after the body was found, but for the moment, he finds temporary oasis in the New York Dolls… except the building, in a strong metaphor for the structural integrity of Finestra’s life at that point, crumbles and collapses on everybody inside. Aside from a few cuts and probably some bruising, Finestra appears relatively unscathed as he walks away from the scene and silently wonders what the hell he’s going to do now.
A lot happens in the movie-length episode, and we didn’t even explore the subplot of American Century assistant Jamie Vine’s attempt to make a name for herself by working with punk rock band The Nasty Bits, who are fronted by Kip Stevens (played by Mick Jagger’s son James). The premiere episode established a lot of things, the most important of which is high expectations.
What did you think of the deep debut episode? Let us know in the comments!
Vinyl airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO