This week’s Vinyl was actually good! Pop some champagne! Cut up some lines of coke on the desk! Cue the orgy! And, now that we’re lit and laid, let’s continue.
“The Racket” finally feels like what the preceding episodes were frantically trying (and failing) to capture: the vertiginous sweep of the times, sometimes too fast to keep up with, never a dull moment. How not-dull are we talking here? Lester literally sets Richie’s office on fire in the first of two “fuck you”s, the second of which being the show’s most contrived TV show thing to date (and that plays wonderfully) — his anointing himself manager of the Nasty Bits for the apparent sole purpose of screwing Richie out of a few thousand dollars.
Richie’s marriage is, abruptly, falling apart. The business of his being a recovering addict in the music industry in the early 70s has always felt weird, as much a product of a time travel accident as the Nasty Bits’ immaculate production values. Richie acts obnoxious on coke, but everyone acts obnoxious on coke, and while destroying a television set with a vintage guitar is a bit of a behavioral red flag, it’s kind of the only one. Devon’s adamant insistence that he stay dry is still hazily motivated, as the “out of control” version of Richie seems remarkably benign. He responds immediately to the drolly, dippy 70s couples therapy exercise, which Devon wholly rejects. She goes as far as to meet with a divorce lawyer and later smashes a window in frustration, not unlike Richie with the TV set. It’s increasingly mysterious why they became a couple, why they stayed together and what prompted their apparently frantic dash into suburban domesticity, and why that light-speed trajectory is being reversed so soon. This is not to say that that it won’t ultimately make sense down the road, but at the moment, it’s a total head-scratcher.
Everything else in “The Racket” flows harmoniously, abetted by some excellent direction by S.J. Clarkson, whose fluid, fluent takes — in collaboration with series cinematographer Reed Morano, whose earthy, grain work has been consistently the best thing about the post-pilot episodes — revel in the movement of bodies in space, and in the opulent, detailed production design. Even more than Scorsese’s work in the pilot, Clarkson captures the above-mentioned sweep, and, more importantly than it sounds, she finally shoots people doing cocaine at ground level and unhanded by God. Debora Cahn’s script feels leaner, and far more focused, than the writing has to date.
To that point, Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald recently asked, on their podcast, the simple yet vital existential question plaguing Vinyl: is Richie Finestra actually good at his job? He isn’t much of an administrator — the office is consistently teetering on the brink of total meltdown — and his legendarily “golden” ear is in doubt; he immediately recognized Kool Herc as a visionary from a moving car (with other things on his mind) years before anyone outside the South Bronx even knew who Kool Herc was. But he also thinks the Nasty Bits are good, and the Nasty Bits really suck. The Robert Goulet Christmas album was genius, though, and Cahn and Clarkson do a wry job stitching together some plot business around it. A lot of Vinyl‘s future hinges upon whether or not Richie actually is good at what he does. The operating assumption of the series’ creators seems to be that he is. As the series progresses, though, they need to, in the words of intro to dramatic writing teachers everywhere, show this rather than tell.
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.