'Vinyl' Recap: Rock and Roll Suicide

Not even a David Bowie cameo can help this episode find its groove

J.C. MacKenzie, Ray Romano, Susan Heyward, Bobby Cannavale, and P.J. Byrne in this week's episode of 'Vinyl.' Credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO

As the late great David Bowie himself once sang, "Don't lean on me, man." Would that Vinyl had listened: The show’s sixth episode — “Cyclone" — was also its weakest, the first where its tales of excess and ecstasy threatened to just fall apart completely. You can't blame Bobby Cannavale and Olivia Wilde, who seem to pour body and soul into every scene. But despite the high-decibel dedication and all that boundlessly destructive physical energy, their performances are practically drowned out by the pyrotechnics of twisty reveals and clunky incorporation of IRL icons.

For all the show's (welcome!) love of pop history, its musical reenactments land with a thud more often than not. Perhaps it's because the faux musicians are rarely given more to do than mere impersonation. Andy Warhol, seen here being assaulted by an out-of-his-gourd Richie oustide Max's Kansas City, works well because John Cameron Mitchell, makes him feel like a character rather than a special effect. (As the impresario behind Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the actor/playwright is no stranger to rock mythologization.) But unless the fake famous rock stars are handed something fun — like how Alice Cooper went golfing with a boa constrictor a few weeks ago — they just lie flat on the screen, making you wish you were watching actual archive footage of the real thing.

And with the memory of David Bowie, to which the episode was explicitly dedicated before the closing credits, so fresh in everyone's mind, watching a bunch of guys pretend to be him and the Spiders from Mars feels unfair to both the performers and the viewers. (Plus he’d already jettisoned the band by this point in 1973.) Staging their rendition of "Suffragette City" as a low-energy sound check rather than a full-fledged performance only further dims the Starman’s luster, and no amount of flirting with Annie Parisse's why-isn’t-she-running-this-company record exec Andrea Zito could make up for it.

Nor does the incorporation of real-life rock history into its Vinylverse equations quite click. In this episode, Nasty Bits lead singer Kip meets his new lead guitarist, a complete stranger, when the two of them spontaneously rob a guitar store together. It's a funny scene, but it's swiped straight from the origin story of the Sex Pistols, who presumably are floating around out there among Finestra & co. along with every real act from Led Zeppelin to DJ Kool Herc. The encounter is also borrowed from a Ziggy Stardust–era Bowie lyric, in "Hang On to Yourself": "The bitter comes out better on a stolen guitar." This kind of magpie mash-up approach to the legends of pop works fine in something like, say, Velvet Goldmine or Eddie and the Cruisers, but Vinyl aims for verisimilitude rather than fantasy. You can't have it both ways.

Richie's long weekend with his hallucinated dead friend Ernst almost — almost — succeeded, an impressive feat given how shopworn the "mentally unstable lead in a post-New Golden Age prestige drama talking to someone who may or may not be real" device has gotten over the past year. (What's up, The Leftovers and Mr. Robot?) Much of that success is down to Carrington Vilmont's deliciously saucy performance as the late German artiste, since lines like "zey could be rubbing zeir pussies together" go down a lot easier in a comical Dieter-from-Sprockets accent. Olivia Wilde went a long way toward selling it, too: Since she couldn’t come right out and say "but he's dead!" when her husband tells her who he spent the last few days with; instead, she had to convey her shock, fear, and disgust solely with the tone of her voice and the look in her eyes. Her terror was at least as memorable as her nude scene, which is saying something.

In the end, though, Vinyl cranked this one too far. Ernst's un-reality was obvious from his first scene, which in itself is fine — the fun came from watching other characters watch Richie refer to him as if he were really there. So when the show finally decided to drive his death home, the big reveal felt forced and flat, shattered-skull makeup and all. And they didn't stop there, either: After we learn his status for certain, we're shown a superfluous flashback in which the four friends get into a car crash on Coney Island due to their inebriated carousing. But Finestra already had a horrible death on his conscience in the form of murdered radio honcho Buck Rogers; adding his friend — and Devon's unborn child, which she loses in one of those instantaneous miscarriages that TV is so inexplicably fond of — to the guilt pile is just gilding the lily. You're left wondering if the show's self-conception is like American Century's view of its toilet-shaped logo: Only outsiders can see the problem.

Previously: Dirty Dancing