“That’s a skeleton. Everybody’s got one.”
There’s a good show buried somewhere inside the increasingly clunky heap that is Vinyl, a program currently wasting what has to be the steeliest performance of Olivia Wilde’s career in between leaden celebrity lookalikes and unexceptional scenes of rock ‘n roll bravado. ‘E.A.B’ has moments of fun, from a great opening number in which ACR’s partners waltz pitifully into a doomed bank loan hearing to ‘Here Comes the Sun’ to a lightning-fast Goodfellas cutaway to Galasso strangling some chump in an over-the-shoulder hold. Too much of it, though, is eaten up by a ludicrous farce of a scene in which John Lennon watches Bob Marley play a set while Devon cons her way into taking Lennon’s picture.
It’s a mess. Devon charming her way through Lennon’s defenses is fun, but the sequence amounts to little more than her getting kudos from a sleazy photographer. Her sleeping with the man after the fact feels beyond stupid, a joyless sex scene that takes away from her supposed triumph in securing what looks, once it’s developed, like a prom photo of Lennon. It’s a tepid, uninteresting reward for a subplot cheapened by the thoughtless inclusion of some of the greatest musicians of the century. The simultaneous presence of both Marley and Lennon in the same dingy night club feels laughably contrived, a cheap way to keep knocking us over the head with where and when we are.
The clownish misery of the opening sequence is a snapshot of what Vinyl does best. The show roars when it leans into weird, impossible-to-watch-with-a-straight-face moments like Hal smashing a gold record on the office floor and then laying a Satanic curse on his followers. “Lord of Sorrows,” he intones, a red-faced and shaky acolyte of the Great Deceiver, “forgive me for what I’m about to do.” It’s uproarious, from the dubious expressions of his coworkers to the sheer left-field insanity of it. So too is his dressing-down by Andy, who derides the prospective logos he brings her as “A dick, two dicks, a map of Italy, and the actual Volkswagon logo” before slipping in the final knife by reminding him that his proposal for record-shaped cakes at the launch party overlooks the fact that cakes are already record-shaped.
The night club, the backroom bravado, Richie posturing with Kip, and all the rest of the mucking around just feels dull next to the combination of calamity and idiocy that succeeds so well elsewhere. Clark walking into a disco club with Barabbas’s ‘Wild Safari’ strikes a muddy note, succeeding as a pure expression of the feelings music can inspire while also dredging up some of the uncomfortable racial dynamics that have plagued the weaker-than-water mail room subplot. It’s a murky, frustrating episode of a TV show working too hard to portray itself as a cool insider’s look at a secret world of towering musical geniuses and avant garde artists even as it utterly fails to utilize its female cast and keeps dropping the ball with its cameos. Elvis and Warhol remain the only people who feel like, well, people, while Marley is set dressing and Lennon feels utterly unremarkable, a wasted opportunity and a crutch for a show with no confidence in one of its own leads.
There’s one other scene worth mentioning. I don’t think Kip has ever really landed as a character, but him and his bandmates watching Lester run through the basic structure of half of American musical history with expressions of dawning realization and sheepish excitement speaks right to the heart of not just playing music but loving it, something the show sometimes struggles to grasp. Vinyl has its strengths, but unless it learns to play to them, it’s doomed to life as a broken record of tired plotting and ineffectual gravitas.