“This week’s Vinyl was like your dope dealer’s Mad Men fanfic ‘spec script’ starring himself as Don Draper.” Such a statement might need a little more context if you’re not in the habit of buying drugs, but suffice to say, it’s both true and a little mean, because “The King And I” was way better than the average Vinyl episode.The embarrassingly terrible musical cameos (Gram Parsons showing up a couple months before his death in a comic relief capacity was in poor taste) and “interludes” (which two Beach Boys were those dudes who couldn’t hit the high notes even supposed to be?) were counterbalanced with a doozy that transcended caricature and made for a few moments of mesmerizing drama: Elvis.
The plot this week, owing to the sudden realization that Ray Romano was still on the show, sent Richie and Zak to the Coast to sell the company plane for a quick infusion of cash, during which experience the two bond. At a party in Malibu that’s essentially the Annie Hall party at Paul Simon’s joint (but with more tits and offensive Gram Parsons caricatures), Zak overhears that Elvis — the Elvis, not the other Elvis — is unhappy with his label, and he zooms over to Richie to relay the good news. Richie, despite being clean and sober, is still impulsive, and it’s off to Vegas.
A bit of role reversal ensues, with Zak running around high as a kite with two women who may or may not be sex workers (and who are, not to put to fine a point on it, for that very reason the perfect harsh-light-of-dawn avatars of HBO’s conception of unmarried women on prestige dramas) and Richie doing surprising things like seemingly quitting when he’s ahead on a great run at the blackjack table. After Zak almost blows their chances at getting Elvis by acting like an asshole at the show they go to, Richie somehow manages to get into Elvis’ suite, and the two of them really hit it off, bonding over everything from “real” rock ‘n’ roll to Abraham Maslow (whom Richie is reading, in highly obtrusive Mad Men fanfic fashion, in several scenes), before Colonel Tom Parker comes in and puts a stop to the fun. It’s a great scene because a) Richie isn’t on drugs, and therefore Bobby Cannavale is behaving like a mammal, b) the guy who plays Colonel Tom Parker is terrifying, and c) the guy who plays Elvis is basically doing the same costume drag everyone on Vinyl does except he invests his Elvis with a deeply moving terror of the outside world and heartbreaking need to defer to a more powerful man. This makes Richie’s apparent progress all the more frustrating when it becomes clear that he was only making headway with Elvis because Elvis wanted to be lead. The historicity of all this is beyond me, and I’ll welcome any Elvis scholars’ input. Personally, though, it’s the first instance of a real-life person cameo on Vinyl being genuinely affecting, transcending the state of rote, shallow impersonation.
There’s a minor bit of business that almost works with Clark, the fallen climber, trying to win over his new colleagues in the mailroom, which he maybe sort of accomplishes but only because Jamie literally hands him the solution. What that means, I have no idea. But something about privilege, class and gender almost coalesces into a complete thought for a quick second there.
Which brings us to Vinyl as a whole: What is it? Why does it matter? Is it bigger than a breadbox? Is there any point to Richie being an asshole? Is Richie even a character? What is it about Richie Finestra as a protagonist that requires this story be set in the early 70s? What about that time does he reflect? Is Vinyl an actual show or an elaborate display of wheel-spinning brought on by HBO greenlighting something based on a “oh fuck, we actually have to make this thing now” panicked scramble? Man may never know.
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.