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.
The Factory scenes also do little to flesh out Devon as a character. Andy apparently admires her frighteningly free spirit; he jokes he wants to film her just to get her to sit still and shut up, but we aren’t given any evidence of this ourselves. Her career as an actor gets a brief passing mention, and her passion for photography never results in any photographs we actually get to see. Even in her own memories, she’s noteworthy not for the things she does, but for the people she impresses. Yet these memories are meant to be such an improvement from her current dreary life that she leaves her kids in a Friendly’s as she wanders down memory lane. That’s a pretty brutal insight into how hard it is to be a parent when you’ve got your own stuff going on, but it’s a raw deal for Devon. Richie’s cutaways to classic rock ‘n’ rollers involve Otis Redding, and Bo Diddley; his wife drives around in a daze with Karen Carpenter riding shotgun.
At least the scenes involving Zak Yankovich and his family have their comic relief status as an excuse for his wife’s one-dimensionality. She spends their scenes literally adding insult to injury: arranging a bat mitzvah for their daughter that will blow all their remaining money; haranguing him about his broken nose (a result of Richie’s onslaught; Zak says he got rear-ended); complaining about her in-laws; and on and on. In fact, she all but nags him to death, driving him to the brink of a Valium overdose and carbon-monoxide poisoning in his garage before he thinks better of it. Alone, maybe this is acceptable. Add it to Devon’s desperate-housewife routine and it’s tougher to justify.
Yes, it’s early yet, and maybe there will be more to these women revealed in future episodes. But it’s 2016, folks. Prestige drama’s “wife problem” is an issue of long standing, and giving the females in these bad boys’ lives something interesting to do — even if it’s constrained by the sexism of the time — is hardly asking the a writers’ room to split the atom. This show has enough faith in its musical message to allow us to laugh about it. Hopefully, it will display an equal commitment to its characters by taking all of them seriously.
Previously: Rock and a Hard Place