“Cyclone” is the most trying episode of Vinyl yet for anyone less than fascinated with Bobby Cannavale’s Richie Finestra. He spends the entire episode running around out of his mind on coke — a drug he has still not learned how to snort properly despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars in volume — with a minor character who had previously appeared in precisely one scene. Richie tries to have sex with the redheaded receptionist (in his customary bathroom doggystyle stare-at-himself-in-the-mirror move), only to be thwarted by coke dick. Richie unsuccessfully tries to bully Kip into picking a random replacement lead guitarist. Richie assaults Andy Warhol outside Max’s. Richie hotwires and steals a car. Richie scares a Jewish family. Richie scandalizes another Jewish family — Zak’s, at his daughter’s bat mitzvah — and is physically ejected. This litany of embarrassments is compounded by the wild grasping by Cannavale for any textual terra firma, any sense of a character with any substance to him at all beyond “guy on a bender.” There is none. It is painful to watch an actor of his caliber as bereft of any playable material. He is utterly lost, and it’s not even possible to sympathize really, because all through this business, the one dimension to Richie as a character — at all — is that he is such a fucking asshole.
But that’s not even the worst part about “Cyclone”. The worst part is that Ernst, Richie’s faithful bender buddy and drawling Teutonic comic relief, is a hallucination. Some years back, Richie crashed a car carrying Devon, Ingrid and Ernst in Coney Island, killing Ernst and leading to Richie’s vow of sobriety. So, somehow after killing Buck Rogers in the pilot, the guilt of killing Ernst led Richie to start doing drugs again, but the memory of killing Ernst leads him to stop doing drugs. The amount of subjective time wasted watching Richie consume drugs the last few episodes felt like 12 seasons of torturous morass. To think all it took to end the nightmare was a hallucinated Brian Jones-looking character with a fake German accent.
There were, despite the florid complaint above, some striking moments in “Cyclone”. One is the extraordinary scene, like a three-minute remake of Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse, in which Olivia Wilde’s Devon returns to modeling. The glass-is-half-empty take on this is that any scene without Richie is Vinyl at its best, but rather than dwell on negativity, I’d rather hold up this scene as a serene, if hermetically discrete, moment from the show as a whole — unbothered lingering on the beauty of the human body. If only Devon were the main character.
This is, more in this episode than any other, the takeaway from Vinyl: there are at least three other complete television shows elbowing each other out of the way for subplot room, all of which are preferable to the status quo. The story about Lester recovering from the brutality of the music business to be the midwife of hip-hop. The story about Juno Temple’s character (so underused I forgot her name was Jamie until I looked it up) accidentally stumbling onto the birth of punk. Devon’s story. Zak’s story. Hell, the story about how Caspar the A&R guy gets to fuck ABBA. Anything but Richie. Hopefully now that he’s sober again, he’ll get to actually have character traits.
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.