'Vinyl' Recap: Long Live the King

A killer cameo from Elvis shines — and leaves the rest of the show in the shadows

Bobby Cannavale, left, and Ray Romano in 'Vinyl.' Credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO

It lasted no longer than the A-side of a 45. But for a brief, beautiful period on tonight's Vinyl — titled "The King and I," because of course it is — it looked for all the world like we were about to enter an alternate timeline in which Elvis Presley invented punk rock.

Why not, right? It was all coming together for Richie Finestra. Clean(ish) and sober for the first time in weeks, he'd flown to Los Angeles to sell the company plane and then skipped over to Vegas, chasing a rumor that the rhinestone-encrusted legend was looking to change labels. He had a hot streak in the casino; he hooked his old pal Zak Yankovic with his very first threesome (women in this world are as fungible as poker chips, and doled out as a reward in much the same way); and he made an end-run around the menacing Colonel Tom Parker for an audience with the King of Rock and Roll himself.

Then Finestra makes his pitch. Like the show itself — or the show as it would like to be — it's an impassioned plea to get back to the beating heart of rock, the sound of the singer's early, hungry years. Richie references Scotty Moore and the '68 Comeback Special, the Nasty Bits (!) and Muscle Shoals. Intrigued by the back-to-basics approach, Elvis reminisces about Bill Black's bass playing and ruefully wishes he'd played Woodstock like he'd wanted to. For a second, it seems like the desperate record exec is going to play Rick Rubin to the the King's Johnny Cash circa the American Recordings — if not Aerosmith on the Run-DMC version "Walk This Way" — decades before the fact. The prospect of a stripped-down Presley playing protopunk alongside the Dolls and the Stooges is tantalizingly close, and if it means chucking reality out the window, fuck it, that's rock 'n' roll, baby.

Then the Colonel shows up, and it all goes south. In the presence of his minder/manager, the velour-tracksuit-clad icon transforms instantly, from a frustrated artistic genius to an obedient manchild, doing Bruce Lee moves and going to bed when ordered. Richie winds up with a gun in his face before being sent packing, and with him goes the vision of Vinyl becoming a music-industry Man in the High Castle.

It's a tremendous scene, easily the best real-life rock-star cameo of the series to date. Much of the credit goes to actor-singer Shawn Klush, a truly uncanny Elvis impersonator who's asked both to perform as the King in full Vegas mode and reveal the regrets behind the rhinestone jumpsuit. And Gene Jones, who played the terrified gas-station owner menaced by Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men ("What's the most you ever lost on a coin toss") now gets to do the menacing himself as the Colonel. He's a vicious old bastard who hits passers-by with his cane for no apparent reason and appears fully capable of doing to Richie what he and Joe Corso did to Andrew Dice Clay's character in the pilot. But most of all, it's a chance for music buffs to imagine what might have been.

Unfortunately, it all makes the rest of the episode look like, well, a bloated, Sin-City–era Elvis. The trouble starts with the very idea of a California sojourn to clear the head of an out-of-control creative visionary from New York — gee, where have we seen that before? Nothing that happens in either L.A. or Vegas, Presley tangent aside, is any more novel than the go-West vision quest concept underlying it. Awful Malibu party filled with cokeheads and hippies? Inert cameos by real musicians ("Oh hey, it's Gram Parsons, Mama Cass, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, and Neil Young?") A disastrous ending (the disappearance of all their money) and a shocking twist (the women they met didn't steal it, Richie did, and gambled it away) that exists only to restore the status quo? All present and accounted for. And the less said about an egregious B-plot  involving hopeless A&R wannabe Clark endearing his "honky ass" to the mailroom guys by passing them a joint, the better.

When you stack up the Elvis scene against everything else, the magnitude of the missed opportunity for the show feels nearly as great as Presley's. Sure, maybe it's nuts to suggest that Vinyl really should have gone ahead with a drastic revision of the King's real reign. But showrunner Terence Winter and director/producer Allen Coulter are no strangers to nuts: Boardwalk Empire only truly took off at the end of its second season, when they made a series of creative decisions so far out they were almost too big to fail. Right now, like the Colonel, they're thinking small, and it's shortchanging the artists and the audience alike.

Previously: Rock and Roll Suicide