“Yesterday Once More” is an unfortunate title for the second episode of Vinyl, in that its entire storyline feels like something that has already been done, and done better. The opening scene starts off amusingly. Three characters whose names will probably stick in the memory four or five episodes from now (but who for now are “that guy, that guy, and that guy” — Ray Romano, J.C. MacKenzie, P.J. Byrne) stall for time waiting for Richie Finestra to show up to sign the contract with the Germans, and they’re funny, until Richie shows up. That’s the episode’s biggest problem: its best scene is one the lead character isn’t in. The pilot’s structure resembled a vinyl record by being circular. The follow-up resembles one because there’s a hole in the middle.
Richie’s near-death experience at the fictional collapse of the Mercer Hotel has turned him into an entirely different person than the one the show introduced last week. Reincarnated as a factory fresh wild man/doesn’t-play-by-the-rules genius who’s Seen The Light and isn’t in it for the money, Richie’s in it for the love (except he’s not into intimacy) and keeps his beautiful wife at arms distance — given enough time, he will eventually check every single square on the Prestige TV Protagonist bingo card. Richie proceeds to pull a “Glengarry Glen Ross” on his beleaguered A&R unit, telling them they’re all fired unless they can pull a commercially viable yet passionately artistic act out of their hat. This after deciding on a whim that they’re not selling the company to the Germans after all, despite the 30 thousand mentions of it in the pilot. And, weirdly, the cop whose card Richie kept taking out and staring at in the pilot isn’t after him because of the guy he (accidentally) killed, but because of a bookie Richie’s old Outfit acquaintance (the one who ordered Lester’s windpipe crushed so he couldn’t sing anymore) had clipped.
The most frustrating aspect to all of this, which achieves full bloom in Devon (Olivia Wilde)’s flashbacks, is that the presumed point to the show, it being a period piece about the music business in the 70s, is undercut by all of the historicity being so relentlessly unconvincing. Yes, if John Cameron Mitchell wants to play Andy Warhol, John Cameron Mitchell gets to play Andy Warhol by virtue of being John Cameron Mitchell and there isn’t anything anyone can do about it. That critique is off the table. (Don’t ask why. Rules, that’s why.) But the fake Velvet Underground are almost as bad as the fake Zeppelin last week (the fake New York Dolls continue to be the show’s high water mark for quality), and the fictional Nasty Bits sound like time travelers from 30 years in the future. Any fictional depiction of music faces the trap of having characters ooh and ahh over something terrible. The Nasty Bits issue is different: they’re mocked pitilessly by A&R head Jules for being monkeylike amateurs, but the music that comes out of their amps is clearly played by professional musicians, albeit ones likely instructed to play a little loose and rough. It’s a dissonance that forcibly ejects anyone with overly finicky ears from the entire world of the show.
But, in a final note of hopefulness, it’s still early going. Richie may, in all too many ways, be a character with an inner life so thoroughly explored in other work that there is no new ground to discover, but unlike his predecessors, he actually shows his dick instead of just acting like one. Hopefully by the end of the season this will not be the sum total of the show’s novelty, as at the moment it feels hollow, rote, and devoid of any unifying or motivating purpose. So, there’s that to fix, but Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Rome. Vinyl, though, needs to stop skipping and get to the next track.
Danny Bowes (@bybowes) is an artist and critic whose film and TV writing has appeared in Premiere, Tor.com, The Atlantic, Indiewire, Yahoo! Movies, RogerEbert.com, Salt Lake City Weekly, and The A.V. Club.