Who says drama has to be such a po-faced business? We would, normally. The tendency of many viewers and critics to conflate seriousness with self-seriousness is a worrisome trend, given how grim the world outside the screen is right now. If you can't face it on your TV, where can you face it? But there's no reason prestige television can't be a belly laugh as well as a primal scream, and tonight's episode of Vinyl — "The Racket" — is a case in point.
Credit director S.J. Clarkson — a British TV vet who was part of the all-woman team behind Jessica Jones' pilot — for brilliantly building on Mark Romanek's visually assured direction last week. She goes for broke in a way that might have out-Scorsesed Scorsese himself, her camera zooming in and out of the action like an active participant. (The whiplash-inducing scene in which Lester sets fire to his master tape in Richie's office is a particular highlight.) Elsewhere she simply lets the thing roll for long take after glorious long take, moving from one character or conversation to the next in a perfect evocation of the American Century office's controlled chaos. By the time she's cutting between extreme close-ups of quarters and vinyl records in a montage set to Pink Floyd's "Money," then turns it into a tracking shot following payola expert Skip Fontaine and some fake Donny Osmond records, you're tempted to shout, "Wheeeee!" She makes it look fun, which in the post-Breaking Bad era is in short supply in the big dramas — and that's before we get an entire musical number starring funk lothario Hannibal in a ruby-red jumpsuit.
But this week's episode wasn't just fun, it was also funny. Consider the limousine scene in which Skip, Zak, Julie, and Scott bicker like little kids over the mess Richie Finestra has made for them, complete with jostling for legroom and struggling with the car's ancient mobile-landline phone. ("Look out the window! Play the license-plate game!") Or the soul-crushing cringe comedy of Robert Goulet, the best pop-star cameo yet, recording a syrupy day-after-Christmas carol. ("Fa-la-la-la-la, goodbye to gingerbread…") Or Richie's many, many one-liners, making the most of Bobby Cannavale's natural crazy-man comedian demeanor. (To Lester: "I'd offer you a drink, but you're an asshole.") Or Devon's visit to a divorce lawyer who simply calls bullshit on her half-hearted attempt to leave Richie and asks for the check. When you combine this stuff with the anything-goes cinematography, you've got a drama that feels like it found a fresh new sound.
To be honest, not everything Vinyl does that falls outside the usual prestige-drama purview actually works. The frequent fantasy cutaways to late musical legends performing songs vaguely relevant to the characters' state of mind — these things are already obvious from what we've just seen and stop the show dead in its tracks every time. Musically, they could just as easily be slipped into the soundtrack instead of unconvincingly staged by lookalikes in some celestial nightclub; unbelievable as this sounds, True Detective Season Two did it better. In the case of the many, many black R&B and soul singers these segments have featured: If the show (correctly) thinks they're so important, maybe it should have been a show about them, and not about the obnoxious white guys who got rich off of their work. As it stands, there's an uncomfortable touch of the "magical negro" trope to every time an African-American performer pops up to provide musical accompaniment to Richie and company's innermost feelings.
And simply in terms of rock & roll fandom, there's just something kind of off about these scenes. Vinyl's take on big-time music fans has generally been pretty tight — think of Richie and Zak trading childhood memories by the pool at his party — which makes this fundamentally misconceived device so frustrating. A good song can transport you to another place, but is that place ever an empty room with a lone, blindingly backlit performer? When you really connect to a song, it draws you in, weaves its way into your brain, becomes a part of who you are. It doesn't leave you in the audience while the singer does their stuff. Maybe that's why the most effective of these sequences involved Karen Carpenter, of all people: Besides the fact that there's no icky race stuff in play there, her appearance melted directly into Devon's life, singing in Mrs. Finestra's car instead of in Rock Flashback Limbo. (By the way, the show's respectful and admiring approach to the freaking Carpenters ought to leave people who complain about its supposed "rockism" with a lot of explaining to do. Sigh)
Four episodes deep, Vinyl shows a promising willingness to lean into the crazed decadence of its setting and the screwball personalities of its characters. keeping things fast and loose rather than leaden and pretentious. If it keeps moving in this direction, it really could rock.
Previously: Pop Life