Music Television: Why “Atlanta” Succeeds and “Vinyl” Failed

FX’s “Atlanta” is one of the best new shows of the year.  It’s received critical acclaim, solid ratings, and that all-important social media buzz that separates the wheat from the chaff.  After watching the first couple of episodes (I’m not caught up, so no recaps I’m afraid), I can see why it has become so popular, so fast.  It’s a funny, thoughtful, and well written show about starting from the bottom in today’s music industry (among other things).  It also happens to be the brainchild of one of the most talented people in entertainment – Grammy nominated musician and acclaimed actor Donald Glover.

Meanwhile, last spring, HBO introduced us to a show called Vinyl.  Like Atlanta, it is also about the music industry.  Like Atlanta, it had some heavyweight creative power behind it (Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese, Terrance Winter).  That’s where the similarities end.  Unfortunately for HBO and the two hours of my life I wasted on the pilot, Vinyl went straight to the discount rack.  And not the nice, record store discount rack – I mean the one at the gas station off highway 95 in the middle of Jersey.

For two shows that have nothing in common other than the music industry and creative talent, it’s useful to compare them.  Doing so sheds a light on why some TV shows succeed and others fail.

1. Focus, People!

Maybe Vinyl was trying to be chaotic, but it came across and an unfocused mess.  It was trying to tell a story about too much at once, without stopping for a moment to think about why a story about 1970’s rock and roll could be relevant.  It just assumed that the time period and industry were inherently interesting without bother to focus in on any particular characters or storylines long enough to, you know, actually be interesting.

Atlanta is quite the opposite – it’s focused like a laser beam on Earn (Donald Glover), his family, and his attempts to help his cousin, Alfred aka Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) make it in the music industry.  The clear writing, real life situations, and humor allow the audience to connect to this story without trying too hard.

2. Show in the Show/Music in the Show

Comparing these shows in some ways is like comparing “30 Rock” to “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.”  Both shows premiered in the same year, on the same network, and they were about the exact same thing, a late night, SNL-style variety show.  The comedy succeeded.  The drama failed.

Fast forward ten years.  No, Vinyl and Atlanta aren’t about the exact same thing, but the comedy works and the drama did not for similar reasons.  Like “Studio 60,” Vinyl tried so hard to convince us that the bands/music were good without, you know, actually being good.  30 Rock and Atlanta succeed because they make the show and music take a backseat to the interactions between the characters.

3. Gimmicks

Finally, I want to take some time to talk about TV show gimmicks.  The first two episodes of Atlanta are refreshingly free from gimmicks.  The writing is strong enough that gimmicks are unnecessary.

What do I mean by gimmicks?  How about pointless musical cut-scenes?  How about bad impressions of historical figures like John Lennon, Robert Plant, and Andy Warhol?  How about sex and drugs for the sake of there being sex and drugs? How about every single moment of Vinyl?

Conclusion

Come to think of it, the only funny thing about Vinyl was how much of a ridiculous caricature it was.  Anyway, Atlanta and Vinyl are both about people trying to make it in the music industry.  Atlanta is a good show.  Vinyl was a bad show.  Above are some of the reasons way.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe