“Put it into the couch, not your marriage.”
‘The Racket’ is loud, angry, and fucking hilarious. It begins with Richie taking his anger out not on his and Devon’s relationship but, at his glacially calm therapist’s suggestion, on the couch. With a tennis racket. His subsequent golden-boy claim that he’s worked out his shit is just one of the many rackets in an episode which ends with our hero seeking not catharsis but an alibi, from his estranged father no less, for Buck’s murder. Everyone’s cheating and chiseling everyone out of everything, and nobody’s in on the joke. ‘The Racket’ feels like throat-clearing from Vinyl‘s emerging voice, at once frustrated and playful, riotous and contemplative.
Lester walking into Richie’s office to burn the reel Richie put together from his old material is a good scene on its own. The man who lost his voice intentionally destroys the record of its irrecoverable perfection, the righteous act of demolition featuring a camera recoil caught somewhere beautifully between The Office and Scorsese and ambiguously set up with the possibility that Lester was there to actually strike some kind of deal and get on Richie’s team. But the double-take Lester does on the corner around the block from American Century when he sees the Nasty Bitz eating outside leads to something much more fun. Richie’s evident frustration when Lester walks back in an hour later as the Bitz’ manager is worth a belly laugh, as is his infuriated-to-thoughtful expression when his aide asks for clarification on whom C. C. should offer to blow. The scene in which Zak, Scott, Skip, and Julian fight like idiot children in the back of the company limousine after Buck’s funeral is a gift that keeps on giving, especially the hateful looks directed at Zak’s ass as he leans into the front to talk on the foreshortened mobile landline.
Skip’s journey to Donny Osmond-themed purgatory is maybe the episode’s cruelest and most madcap joke. The illegal run of Osmond’s albums produced to gerrymander a show of profitability for the Polygram sale are, thanks to a factory manager’s post heart-attack productivity, shipped early and sure to draw attention from the accountants scrutinizing American Century. “I usually have to come down here and piss in your face to get you to ship on time,” Skip rails, but the damage is done. There’s nothing for it but to steal them all back and stash them in, I think, his apartment. Watching J. C. MacKenzie go about it is as fun as it is hysterical. From his scrambling after quarters (caught spinning in close-up to Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’) to his stomping through a factory where we’re treated to close, hypnotic shots of records being pressed, the character comes alive with a cocky, pissy energy reminiscent of Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad. The image of Skip sitting defeated in his apartment with Osmond’s records looming around him is just gut-busting, a preposterous end to a thankless, miserable errand ending itself stemming from greedy overreaching which, in the end, served no purpose at all.
Vinyl isn’t without its faults. The episode’s successes serve to highlight one of the show’s weaker aspects: its abstracted musical numbers. The scenes of beloved musicians belting out their hits in nebulous spaces lit like the set of a Joel Shumacher movie feel disconnected from the show’s identity, too airy and toothless to jive with the visceral ways in which music actually connects to life elsewhere in Vinyl and, well, in life. The Karen Carpenter scene during Devon’s semi-fugue in ‘Yesterday Once More’ felt more natural for its immediate and obvious connection to Devon as a person and Devon as a product of a uniquely stressful moment. There was a feel, you know? A quiet, roaring calm to the whole thing. It set it apart from the diffuse, heavy-handed thematic connections of the other instances, which often broadly connect to the lives of many characters.
The episode’s charms, though, far outweigh its failings. A blockheaded Robert Goulet’s suicidally awful song about the morning after Christmas, Hannibal’s audaciously larger than life funk star act, a pair of cops bursting into song and tag-teaming Richie with the most confusing weird cop-blunt cop routine I’ve ever seen, and the camera leaping all over the place like it’s excited just to be in the room where the action is just made this episode a fucking jam, man. There’s one fucking doozy of a show emerging here, and episodes like this one go a long way toward busting out of that chrysalis. Vinyl has a sense of humor totally absent from much of the rest of prestige drama, a wild willingness to show the full mess, not just the dour, serious stuff when it comes to big things like how people relate to music and to each other. The Important Themes of modern television are, here, treated as absurd as often as they’re treated as momentous.