Film and drama

Screen Themes — Vinyl vs Deadwood

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It’s time for some adult drama as entertainment editor John Turnbull checks out two of the best small screen period pieces, the newly released Vinyl and classic cut Deadwood.

Vinyl created by Terence Winter, Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese & Rich Cohen

There is some serious talent behind Vinyl. Terence Winter previously worked on The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, Rich Cohen wrote period drama Magic City, Martin Scorsese is widely recognized as one of the best directors of all time, and Mick Jagger is in a band.  Set in the 1970’s heyday of rock ‘n roll, Vinyl tells the story of Richie Finestra, head of American Century Records. Played by Bobby Cannavale, Richie is a brash, arrogant player, snorting cocaine by the bucketload as he fights to keep his company afloat in the face of changing tastes and shifting trends.

A veteran of shows like Third Watch and Boardwalk Empire and movies including The Station Agent, Cannavale is electric as Richie, fighting a crooked record industry and his own worst instincts in his effort to keep his head above water. Richie makes bad decisions, abuses his staff, abandons his family and even talks to imaginary friends, but you can’t help but root for him to succeed.

While Cannavale is note perfect as Richie, Vinyl’s supporting cast also deserves praise. Ray Romano is about a million miles from his Everybody Loves Raymond character, playing label head Zak Yankovich, while Olivia Wilde is hearbreaking in her portrayal of Richie’s caged free spirit wife, Devon. Max Casella (who you might remember as Vinnie from the Wonder Years) is almost unrecognizable as head of A&R Julie Silver, while Paul Ben-Victor brings an air of menace to rival label chief Maury Gold.

As you might expect for a drama set in the record industry, music plays a central role in Vinyl. Each episode is packed with hits and deep cuts from the seventies, ranging across genres from Blues, to Punk and the birth of Hip Hop. Many of the performances are done “live” to camera, breaking TV convention by playing entire songs, performed by look-and-sound alikes, some of whom are absolutely astonishing. Worth a special mention was the young man who played David Bowie, giving a haunting performance of Life On Mars in an episode dedicated to the recently departed Thin White Duke.

While the signature camera angles scream “a Martin Scorsese production”, rock god Mick Jagger contributes more than a credible name and some good seventies stories — his son James Jagger plays Kip Stevens, lead singer of newly signed punk band The Nasty Bits. With his father’s angular looks and bruised charisma, the younger Jagger acquits himself nobly among the talented cast, eminently believable as the snotty upstart with talent but zero understanding of how the music business works.

If you have ever enjoyed the music of the 1970s, I highly recommend checking out Vinyl.

Deadwood created by David Milch

Running for three seasons between 2004 and 2006, Deadwood was set in the eponymous town in South Dakota, home to the good, the bad and the even worse. The series initially follows the story of reluctant sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and his rivalry with eloquent yet dangerous tavern owner Al Swearengen. Fortunately, sometime during the first season David Milch realized that Olyphant had all of the acting range and charisma of a cinderblock, and expanded the show’s focus into an ensemble drama.

Before I go any further it is worth noting that Olyphant did eventually develop both range and charisma, ably demonstrated in Justified, the f/x drama some consider a ‘spiritual sequel’ to Deadwood. But I digress …

Beautifully shot and featuring a huge cast of talented actors including Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Garrett Dillahunt and Brad Dourif, part of Deadwood’s appeal lay in the wonderfully nuanced interactions between the characters, particularly Dourif’s sarcastic Doc Cochran and Robin Weigert’s sassy Calamity Jane. Taking all of this talent into account, there is one character that most people remember from Deadwood, the accurately named Al Swearengen. Played by a never-better Ian McShane (Lovejoy), Swearengen is a force of nature, cunning and manipulative yet gregarious and charming.

By mixing historical characters like Wild Bill Hickok and George Hearst with fictional creations like Swearengen and the odious E.B. Farnum, creator Milch managed to imbue a fictionalized version of Deadwood with living, breathing characters that you genuinely cared about. At the same time, few shows are better than Deadwood at making you root for the bad guy, and there is a certain perverse joy to be had as Mr Wu feeds another unfortunate hoople-head to his hungry pigs.

Running for only three seasons before rising production costs and the growing popularity of many cast members made further episodes untenable, the story of Deadwood remains unfinished. Milch has often stated that he wanted to make a movie (or series of movies) to complete the story, but until recently this remained a pipedream. Fortunately, things finally seem to be moving in the right direction, with HBO president of programming Michael Lombardo confirming that he has signed off on a Deadwood feature film.

F**k yeah.

The Verdict

The rise of premium cable networks like HBO marked the start of a second golden age of Television, where actors and directors who would previously restrict themselves to feature films took the leap into episodic drama.

While both Vinyl and Deadwood are perfect examples of this “second golden age”, Vinyl has the slight advantage of only being one season in, guided by the masterful hand of Martin Scorsese. Deadwood, on the other hand, had the chance to play out a story over 3 seasons, resulting in a handful of episodes that were glacially slow.

Both Deadwood and Vinyl mix characters based on real people with fictional creations, although the effect of seeing a dead-on Elvis or Little Richard impersonation has significantly more impact than a perfect Wyatt Earp, because most people today think Wyatt Earp looks and sounds like Kevin Costner.

Both Deadwood and Vinyl are exceptional TV dramas for adults — check them out if you have the chance.

Vinyl — 9/10

Deadwood — 8/10

Like what you read? John Turnbull''s books are now available on Amazon and Kindle. For about the price of a cup of coffee you can take a journey deep into the disturbed psyche behind columns including Screen Themes, Think For Yourself, New Music Through Old Ears and JT on NXT. There’s supernatural thriller Damnation’s Flame, action/romance Reaper, black comedy City Boy and travel guidebook Bar Trek: Europe. Check them out!

You can also follow John on Twitter @blackmagicjohn.

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