Rock & roll is no joke to Richie Finestra, but don’t let that stop you from laughing. At the beginning of Vinyl‘s second episode, the troubled record exec is still recovering from his New York Dolls–induced epiphany — or he’s in the middle of a cocaine-induced breakdown, take your pick. We see him chopping and kicking along to Enter the Dragon in a rat-infested movie theater like a one-man Rocky Horror Picture Show production. Then, as Bowie blasts on the soundtrack, Finestra careens into the American Century Records’ office, caked in blood and asbestos and God knows what other powdery substances. “Were you mugged?” asks a shocked bystander. “Yes I was—by God,” he replies, “but I took His wallet instead.”
It’s in this oh-so-lucid state of mind that he blows up the label’s sale to Polygram, physically assaults his partners, and announces “my skills have transcended into the spiritual level.” And that’s just the prelude to him kickstarting a quest for the kind of songs “that made you wanna dance, or fuck, or go out and kick somebody’s ass!” Two episodes in, and the show’s tongue is dug so far into its cheek it’s practically poking through.
Which is different from Vinyl‘s public profile, since — judging from the trailers, the commercials, and much of the critical reaction — you’d have thought this prestige-sleaze drama’s public paean to the almighty power of Rock would be presented with po-faced solemnity. Written by co-creator Terence Winter and directed by executive producer Allen Coulter, this week’s chapter — “Yesterday Once More” — plays Richie’s see-the-light transformation largely for laughs. Bobby Cannavale carries the comedy with the same wild-man physicality and booming voice that made his Boardwalk Empire villain such a scream. It’s a smart move. How can you accuse this show of self-seriousness when its main character comes off like a cross between Cesar Romero’s Joker from Batman and a human embodiment of Kanye West’s Twitter feed?
Thank God (or Led Zeppelin … same thing), because the cocaine-mania scenes aside, the episode’s more than a bit on the shaky side. Much of it’s occupied by leaden flashbacks to the Factory scene, where Richie first woos his future wife Devon — and by “woos,” we mean “fucks in the ladies’ room” — while Andy Warhol holds court and the Velvet Underground drone on. Both of them excuse themselves from their current significant others for their restroom assignation and return with the unmistakable vibe of illicit intercourse swirling around them like Pigpen’s cloud of filth; kind of sexy, sure, but Mad Men got there years ago.