On April 8th, fans of HBO’s series Vinyl were disappointed and shocked to learn that co-creator, showrunner, writer, and executive producer Terence Winter has been let go from his ongoing role in the series. Terence Winter’s tenure on HBO goes all the way back to The Sopranos where he wrote 25 episodes and became an executive producer. He then went on to create and write for Boardwalk Empire, HBO’s Prohibition era drama set in Atlantic City starring Steve Buscemi, serving as show runner and executive producer alongside Martin Scorsese, Mark Wahlberg, and Sopranos alum Tim Van Patten.
Set in 1973, Vinyl stars Bobby Cannavale as Richie Finestra, a struggling record company owner driven over the edge by the frantic music scene who must deal with personal and professional challenges including a haunted past in the industry, a fractured relationship with his wife Devon, and an unfortunate series of events that has led him to take part in a homicide. Adding to all this is the chaotic atmosphere of sex, drugs, and Rock n’ Roll in the early 70s music scene. The ensemble also features a very talented group of supporting cast members including Ray Romano as Zak, Richie’s partner and confidant; Max Casella as Julian head of A&R; James Jagger (son of co-creator Mick Jagger) as the leader of a proto-punk band named The Nasty Bits; Juno Temple as one of Richie’s assistants driven to move up in the company who becomes a champion of The Nasty Bits; and Olivia Wilde as Devon Finestra who struggles with her past as a former aspiring model for Andy Warhol having settled down with Richie to become a housewife and stay at home mother for their children.
The series has garnered some critical praise but has thus far failed to come close to achieving the ratings success of Winter’s previous work with the Sopranos or even on Boardwalk Empire. The timing of his termination from the series is somewhat curious. The show has already been picked up for a 2nd season, a move that came soon after the series pilot premiered on February 14th, and the upcoming season finale is scheduled to air on April 17th. It just so happens that the season finale offers what most likely will turn out to be Winter’s final screenplay for the series, perhaps even with HBO at least for the foreseeable future. If that seems a bit odd it might be because Winter’s tenure with HBO began 16 years ago during season 2 of The Sopranos when he wrote for the show and became co-producer. Since then, it seems that Winter has had a consistently active role in multiple HBO projects either writing screenplays, developing new projects, or acting as an executive producer and showrunner.
Winter’s Sopranos season 3 episode “Pine Barrens” remains a favorite among the fans, and while David Chase deserves much of the praise for the success of the Sopranos overall, Terence Winter’s writing played a pivotal role and it can be argued that his “Pine Barrens” episode set the tone for the way the series ultimately ended. When asked about the fate of the Russian mafia henchman who Paulie and Christopher spend most of the episode tracking in vain, Terrence Winter responded:
“That’s the question I get asked more than any other. It drives people crazy: “Where’s the Russian? What happened to the Russian?” We could say, “Well, he got out and there’s a big mob war with the Russians,” or “He crawled off and died.” But we wanted to keep it ambiguous. You know, not everything gets answered in life”
It shouldn’t strike anyone as coincidence that even as early as season 3 The Sopranos team were consciously thinking about open endings. Indeed, The Sopranos changed television in ways that many might now take for granted. As the series went on, more and more emphasis was placed on thematic elements rather than plot; we spent more time with the ensemble cast in multiple character arcs; and the show marked a stark contrast from the episodic television dramas that had come before.
When The Sopranos ended, Winter went on to collaborate with Martin Scorsese on Boardwalk Empire for HBO, an ambitious period crime drama starring Steve Buscemi set in Prohibition era Atlantic City.
The show received high critical praise but lower ratings in the later seasons combined with the high costs of production forced HBO to ask Winter to bring the show to a premature conclusion. Boardwalk Empire ultimately lasted 5 seasons, and even though it never reached the cultural iconic benchmark set by The Sopranos, it still stands as a highly remarkable creative accomplishment for Winter. It brought to the audience a world where fictional characters within the show’s universe were able to interact and engage with historical figures in meaningful and oftentimes very fascinating and unexpected ways. Boardwalk Empire presented an even greater creative challenge for Winter because he had to figure out viable ways for notable historical characters such as Al Capone, Arnold Rothstein, and Lucky Luciano to interact within the universe of the show in a way that not only makes sense for the show creatively but also in a way that is representative of what the real person’s biographical history was for that time. It’s for this reason that I believe that Winter along with the rest of Boardwalk’s creative team pulled off some magnificently brilliant work for this series. Each season represented not only a year in the life of the fictional characters in the show but also a year in the life of the characters who had real life counterparts within that era of American history. Unlike The Sopranos who were able to do whatever they liked to any of their characters, Boardwalk Empire had a responsibility to stay true to real life history only taking creative license when absolutely necessary.
When it comes to Vinyl, there could be many reasons for the low ratings. The show has yet to post a rating of over a million viewers for an episode, which Boardwalk Empire had been able to do even during the latter half of its run. Some may say that the decline of Rock music in general may be indicative of the lack of interest in a show that is meant to summon nostalgia for this period for the audience. While it’s true that Rock has taken a bit of a back seat to Hip Hop and Country, I still think a show like this with its unique insight into the record industry should be of interest to younger viewers. The question is whether or not younger viewers who have so many choices when it comes to scripted dramas will seek out a show like this.
The biggest disadvantage that Vinyl has for audiences who do actively seek it out is that it simply can’t do what Boardwalk Empire did when it cast real life historical figures as integral members of its ensemble. While the cameo appearances of iconic musical figures like David Bowie, John Lennon, and Elvis should be enough to make any serious music fan at least curious, this may also work against the show. None of these legendary characters could ever be integrated into the fabric of the show in any meaningful way for obvious logistical reasons, and even if they could integrate a musical icon or two into the show, the level of scrutiny would be enormous.
It wouldn’t have even been possible to include series co-creator and executive producer Mick Jagger into the show this season because the show is set mostly in New York and The Rolling Stones were touring Europe in 1973 supporting their Goats Head Soup album. Besides, if you had Mick Jagger, Elvis, or John Lennon become a part of this show the way Al Capone became a part of Boardwalk Empire it would completely alter the entire nature of the show and divert attention and focus away from the fictional characters in the show. Boardwalk Empire was able to achieve a balance between its fictional and nonfictional characters in a way that just wouldn’t be sustainable for a show like Vinyl.
It’s also possible that this new crop of fictional characters are either failing to resonate with audiences or perhaps taking too long for audiences to respond to. Like any new series, Vinyl has had to contend with a few growing pains. Bobby Cannavale is a brilliant actor who brings a very frantic charm to the role of Richie, but there are times when his self-destructive behavior becomes predictable. Even though Cannavale is fascinating to watch, there are instances where you could tell where the show is taking him and when an audience is able to predict where the show is going it’s never a good thing. The supporting cast has been equally impressive but earlier episodes failed to give Olivia Wilde enough to do.
Now that Winter will no longer be a part of Vinyl, HBO has called on Scott Z. Burns and Max Borenstein to run the show, which leaves serious doubts concerning the show’s viability. There have been other shows that were able to succeed without a key showrunner or creator who developed them, but for an HBO series developed by Terence Winter to continue on without him seems a bit dubious. Whether the new showrunners take the show in an entirely new direction than what Winter intended remains to be seen. According to a previous interview with Winter, he had intended each season of the show to represent a year in the lives of the characters similar to how it had been done on Boardwalk Empire.
“The series will progress in time like Boardwalk did. So, we’ll probably move forward into 1974 when we come back; ’74 was the year that CBGB’s opened, it was the year that The Ramones kind of formed. The Vietnam War was officially over so you had a lot of guys coming back from that too.”
It should also be noted that for both Boardwalk Empire and Vinyl, Terence Winter hosted the “Inside the Episode” featurettes where he talks about each episode exploring the various themes he wanted to get across throughout the course of the show. You can find them on HBO’s site or on youtube. They offer some insights into the creative team’s process for each individual episode regarding character arcs and various plot and thematic elements, which many will no doubt find interesting if you follow his shows.
The season finale for Vinyl is set to air on Sunday, Aprl 17th. The screenplay was written by Terence Winter, and as it stands it may be the final screenplay by Winter we will get to see on HBO. Given his longstanding creative output with HBO, let’s hope that won’t be the case.
Sources for ratings and quotes:
Source for Winter’s remarks regarding S2 of Vinyl