'Vinyl' Recap: Three Chords and the Truth

Why the HBO show should learn to stop worrying and love its losers

Ato Essandoh, Bobby Cannavale, Max Casella and Juno Temple in 'Vinyl.' Credit: Patrick Harbron/HBO

It's the golden rule of cool: The more you try, the less you are. Should Vinyl ever take that lesson to heart, we might have a hell of a show on our hands. The fact is that when its characters are sagging rather than swaggering, losing rather than boozing — that's when it's at its most watchable.

Take the opening scene of tonight's episode, entitled "E.A.B." To the (highly expensive to license) tune of the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun," Richie, Zak, and Skip walk into a bank in slow motion, where they try and fail to get a loan. It's a funny, charming sequence, taking full advantage of actors Bobby Cannavale, Ray Romano, and J.C. MacKenzie's sad-sack faces, their perfect period clothing and hair, and their natural Three Stooges interplay. In essence: When its characters fail, Vinyl works.

This holds true time and time again, with Andrea's big scene this episode another case in point. When American Century's in-house designer Hal comes up with logo treatments for their new sub-imprint Alibi Records, he delivers, in her memorable words, "a dick, two dicks, the map of Italy, and the actual logo for Volkswagen." He gets pissed. She fires him without breaking a sweat. He has a meltdown in which he takes credit for making Bread a household name, then places a satanic curse on the label — the first time Lucifer and "I Want to Make It With You" have ever been mentioned in the same breath.

This kind of comic-relief rage is a million times more engaging at this point than observing Richie's 19th nervous breakdown. Check out Zak and a starry-eyed Scott signing their big Bowiesque star in the making, or Finestra, fresh from taking a loan from the mafia to keep the company afloat, getting caught completely flat-footed by the two obnoxious detectives who secretly bugged his office. These scenes aim for laughs rather than trying to impress us with how badass these people are. They're not! Roll with it!

The thing is, it's very difficult to roll very far at all into Vinyl's world when it keeps throwing rock-star impersonators at you. The occasional fake performance is one thing — a necessity, even, if the show is to be set in a recording industry that's basically identical to the real one of the day. But putting John Lennon in the audience for a show by Bob Marley and the Wailers is just rubbing our faces in the bogusness of it all. Not one but two of the most famous music icons of the 20th century, in the same scene, several feet apart? At that point you're practically daring us to roll our eyes at every inconsistency. Andy Warhol and Elvis Presley remain the series' most effective celebrity cameos by a country mile because they were treated as characters, people with internal lives beyond what their act meant to the people witnessing it. The rest feel like a moving Madam Tussaud's exhibit.

Devon Finestra, sadly, is another obstacle. You can only coast on actor Olivia Wilde's Tolkien-elf beauty and fire-eyed commitment to the role for so long; sooner or later you have to give her a role worth committing to. Tonight, all she gets is a chance to follow in the footsteps of a more successful male photographer, whom she briefly one-ups by successfully charming Lennon into a snapshot. And by having her fuck the shutterbug in his darkroom as they develop the Beatle's picture, the show makes it feel like she was awarded the photo credit as a party favor instead of earning it through talent. It's the same well they went to with the artist at the Chelsea Hotel a couple weeks ago, and with Warhol, and with Richie himself: Devon is always merely the muse to men who have the lives and career she wants to have. After a while this seems less like the sad reflection of the sexism of the times and more like a failure to imagine something interesting for her to do on her own. Say what you will about Betty Draper or Carmela Soprano, two women equally constrained by their misogynistic culture: Each of them felt like her own person, not a photocopy.

But a balance can be struck between the side of Vinyl that's just a funny period piece and the side that wants so desperately to blow you away with how fuckin' cool everyone and everything is, maaan. This episode pulls it off twice, in fact. First, Lester gives the Nasty Bits a rock-and-roll history lesson by playing a medley of classics based on the titular E-A-B chord progression; they react with the wide-eyed glee of kids who just learned what a rainbow is. And at the end of the episode, poor goobery Clark follows Jorge, his new mailroom buddy (free cocaine works wonders for any office relationship), to a basement dance club where the proto-disco vibe, courtesy of Barrabas' "Wild Safari," completely blows his fucking mind. Both scenes convincingly convey the power of music not through some cock-of-the-walk wild man or femme fatale, but by watching some gawky kids just stand there and enjoy themselves. That's a high worth chasing.

Previously: Long Live the King