Saturday, April 02, 2016

Culture Saturday, Mid-Season Cable TV Review: HBO "Vinyl", three thumbs down ... and the "The Walking Dead" sputters to a season finale ... by gimleteye

Cable TV long form dramas have been in a swoon since "Breaking Bad" a few season back on AMC. Last season, "Mad Men" came to a banal end. True there are bright spots like FX's "The Americans".

Bobby Cannavale in HBO "Vinyl"
This season HBO comes up with a clunker: "Vinyl". The series aims high with its depiction of the music business in the ebullient, drug-filled 1960's and a pedigree; Martin Scorcese and Mick Jagger. A fictional record company, American Century, is spinning on fumes. A quartet of flamboyant company executives live large, tripping over past glories and cash flow as they try to stay hep cats with the new music. They aim for Berry Gordy but are fighting their way out of Christmas albums by Robert Goulet. Interesting premise, but the chemistry is all wrong. With "Vinyl", instead of magic mushrooms viewers go straight to a bad trip.

That's a shame, because Martin Scorcese had a great run with HBO's "Boardwalk Empire". He comes naturally to rock and roll. Scorcese's paean to The Band, "The Last Waltz", is a masterpiece.

The lead actor in "Vinyl", Bobby Cannavale (Scorsese's deranged bootlegger in "Boardwalk Empire"), has the thankless task of keeping the plot aloft with endless lines of cocaine and shots of whisky. In "Boardwalk Empire", Cannavale's long fuse -- that he detonated magnificently in due course of Boardwalk Empire -- has turned into a limp coke dick. Every jerk of Cannavale's neck and tilt of his head makes one wonder what it will take to put this show down. What I can say about "Vinyl"? It was better the first time around.

Zosia Mamet, HBO Girls
HBO Getting On
Unfortunately, in HBO's line up this season, "Vinyl" has company. The super small bore "Togetherness" begs the question why audiences should not divorce themselves from this show, at once. Another HBO hit -- "Girls" -- unfolds as if the characters are not that interesting to each other any more. On the positive side, the show's creator, Lena Dunham, and Zosia Mamet team up to create the most intriguing transformation of the series: a Long Island girl whose quirkiness finds an equal partner in weird, contemporary Tokyo. Konishiwa.

There is a place for small bore. HBO's "Getting On" (dysfunctional US health care system brought to life in a malfunctioning small hospital), has a terrific ensemble cast, but its shelf life might also be longer than the patience of its audience.

Here is the moment to mention (thanks, anonymous reader!) the most innovative comedy of the year: "Baskets" on FX. This half hour show is the brainchild of Zach Galifianakis and Louie C.K. Both comics are major talents of their generation. Galifianakis' willingness to push every edge he can find is astounding, and in Chip Baskets he has created a lead character we've never seen on television. Now THAT'S an achievement. I am entranced by this show on FX. If Louie Anderson who plays Chip's mother does not win a Golden Globe and Emmy as best supporting actress, I will eat my Sunday hat. Don't miss this one.

I'm braced for another over-produced, under-delivered season of "Game of Thrones". Move the plot, please! Oh well: Thrones' set designers and make up artists have had a terrific run. It says a lot that the best hope for HBO is next season's return of a terrific series, "The Leftovers". J/K.

HBO documentaries are holding their end of the deal with subscribers. I just watched HBO's "The Making of Mike Nichols": fantastic. Shane Smith's "Vice", a short-form documentary program from its excellent online website delivers great stuff from a cast of strong millennial reporters. (I want them all to run for political office! Yes we can dodge bullets, maybem, and corruption!) Smith and his "Vice" pioneers spin the staid "60 Minutes" format so hard you can almost imagine Morley Safer wobbling.

The Walking Dead, AMC
This Sunday is the season finale of a show I've enjoyed from the first: AMC's "The Walking Dead". Sad to report, though, this season has been a disappointment. Now that the novelty of the WD has worn off, the show's creators plied their enormous AMC audience with slight character changes and predictable evolution. The Walking Dead's characters seem to be going through changes only slightly more enervating than the walking dead themselves. Memo to show runners: if you want to keep the franchise moving, change the one aspect of plot development that you've haven't tampered with: the dead themselves. It's time, just like it's time for hope and change on long-form dramas on cable TV.


Geniusofdespair said...

Good point on the walking dead. The group has changed to killers and have become more unlikable, they too are killing for food. The already dead themselves could mutate and the plot could have them start eating tofu or something. Hating Rick. Carol what will become of her?

Anonymous said...

If you like Vice check out the new Viceland channel. 'Balls Deep' with embedded reporter Thomas Morton is pretty good.

Walking Dead better wrap it up within two seasons (at the most).

Some of the better tv right now:
Better Call Saul
Man Seeking Woman
Mr Robot
House of Cards

Gimleteye said...

Dang. I forgot to mention "Baskets". It is the most innovative comedy of the year. This is the brainchild of Zach Galifianakis and Louie C.K. Both comics are major talents of their generation. I am entranced by this show on FX, and will rewrite my post to include it. If Louie Anderson does not win a Golden Globe and Emmy as best supporting actress, I will eat my Sunday hat.

TV Tom said...

wow, spot on, mostly. you missed your calling. some other shows to consider:

VEEP, Black Sails, Dig, The Circus, Homeland, The Americans. Archer

Anonymous said...

If you like Baskets and Louie Anderson (I agree, best new comedy), listen to the NPR interview from a few weeks back with Terry Gross. It's quite good and they talk about the character (largely based on his mom), his weight and potential for dark humor. It should be online/on somewhere.

Gimleteye said...

Yes I did hear that interview. Another great one from Fresh Air!

Geniusofdespair said...

Baskets. I tried very hard to like it but it didn't work for me. I watched it 3 times. Same with Mr. Robot.

WOOF said...

"Orphan Black" returns April 14,
12 episodes of Happy Valley on Netflix

Anonymous said...

I never watched the series, too depressing for me. I wonder what such psychologically depressing subject matter does on a macro level to mass audiences around the country. Maybe this fatalistic prism transfers to real life, how information is processed, and how coherence is brought to one's life. For many people with no inner core, it does not take much. A negative, fatalistic outlook to life maybe why we are faced with someone like Trump.