‘Vinyl’ falls to a meritocratic axe

JUNE 23RD, 2016 — POST 171

What some might have suspected to be the next It TV series, HBO’s Vinyl won’t be getting a second season. I wrote after the indulgent feature-length pilot on my thoughts about the show and I had a hope others would see the show for what it was: really just quite tedious and cringe-worthy. When Terence Winter left as showrunner, I tallied another tick against this series which, half a year later, won’t be continuing.

There’s more than a tinge of Schadenfreude in my words here. When a creative team is assembled that includes Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, Terence Winter, and Bobby Canavale (amongst others), there’s some sense in which we just expect their product will defy a fate that befalls products unable to boast such a pedigree. Simply, I had feared HBO had sunk far too many resources into the production of Vinyl’s first season to just cut their losses. I’m convinced they thought they had another Boardwalk Empire or perhaps even Mad Men on their hands when the show was first picked up. But whether from ratings, reviews, or piracy rates (a huge measure of Game of Thrones’ success, at least initially), Vinyl just wasn’t able to stack up.

I think those idealistic about capitalism, like myself, reframe the economic system as one where one’s standing is tied to merit. For me at least, this is condensed as “the quality of one’s output”. But, like I said, this is an idealistic position to hold. The quality of one’s output is only part of it. The Big Bang Theory is still able to continue, buoyed by an insatiable yet ravenously lazy audience. Despite recent figures for superhero movies in the West suggesting public enthusiasm has waned, interest in frankly infantilised mythic fiction persists in China, so those movies will surely stick around. And even if the last Call of Duty to move the needle was Modern Warfare 2 in 2009, they still keep making CoD games.

As far as targets for cultural criticism, these are Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons: you can spot them a mile away and ruin them with a thumbtack. But the point remains. Thinking that something, and in this case a cultural product, persists if and only if it’s good is a fantasy.

In losing Vinyl though, we’re given some indication that the long tail of this the second (or third?) Golden Age of Television still might have some gems to be discovered. We’ve already had The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men — if, thankfully, something as much of a “sure bet” as Vinyl can fall, I’m encouraged. Even with the landscape being bloated beyond all hell (yeah, yeah… something about Landgraf and “peak TV” yeah, I got it…), the cream is still rising to the top, and the obvious dregs are being removed. Despite the middle-class of shows — like Broadchurch, Outlander, or Orphan Black — still guaranteed to find an audience, the top spots are as limited and as such more fiercely fought over than a decade ago. House of Cards wants to be there, The Americans wants to be there — and possibly only Game of Thrones is guaranteed to remain there until it ends (will it ever?).

Vinyl specifically — with its budget, setting, and talent — could have very well been a “success” by brute force, a series we’d just have to accept will continue to exist. But TV audiences have come to hunger quality and with brute force unable to ensure this the show goes. If a show like Vinyl, capable of eking out an existence in TV’s middle class, can get cancelled, it signals that those good enough just isn’t enough for the elite networks like HBO. HBO will settle for nothing less than phenomenal when audiences have come to expect nothing less. As such, what the future holds for HBO, television generally, and the audiences so dedicated to its quality continuation is a whole bunch more phenomenal shows.

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