THE WORLD of Mad Men ended in 1970, but it's not hard to imagine what the show would've looked like had it kept going. Vinyl doubles down on that premise by changing the ad pitchmen to record company execs—which means more sex, more drugs, and more rock 'n' roll.
HBO's new show—from Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, writer Rich Cohen, and Boardwalk Empire's Terence Winter—is set in New York City in 1973, although flashbacks to the 1960s dot the narrative, sketching Richie Finestra's (Bobby Cannavale) rise to success. His label, American Century, is about to be sold to a German media conglomerate, and Vinyl depicts, in varying degrees of fact and fiction, the music industry of the era, including payola, the schmoozing of talent, and the contracts that direct volumes of cash away from musicians.
Later episodes find Vinyl settling into the pleasurable hum of a weekly workplace drama, but it's kicked off by an audacious two-hour pilot directed by Scorsese. This is Vinyl at its best and worst, filled with the director's usual bag of tricks: voiceovers, insert shots, stomach-churning violence. His illustration of the music biz rubbing shoulders with the mafia gives Vinyl a darkness that propels the series' narrative, but some of his embellishments are clumsy, and the series' gimmick of hiring actors to play famous musicians is a touch goofy, breaking the narrative spell.
Otherwise, each episode of Vinyl is a bump of finest Merck-grade white, a joy-hit of brain-numbing pleasure. The cast has some real standouts, too, including Ray Romano (really!) as Finestra's partner Zak Yankovich; Juno Temple as the Peggy Olson stand-in; the amazing Max Casella as the head of A&R; and an astonishingly great Andrew Dice Clay as a coked-up radio honcho. With Cannavale's significant charisma at the helm and a tawdry, fascinating scene to plunder for story, Vinyl rides its groove with only a few scratches.