Vinyl Recap: Progressions

Ray Romano as Zak Yankovich. Photo: Patrick Harbron/HBO
Episode Title
Editor’s Rating

With only two episodes left in its first season, it's getting easier to separate good Vinyl from bad. When the show loads up on snappy dialogue, dynamic visual flourishes, random rocker cameos, and showbiz exposés, it "works." That's when it doesn't matter as much if characters are being annoying jerks for no reason, or if the story seems to be spinning its wheels. But when Vinyl careens off into retro kitsch and forced edginess? That's when the writers should heed their own characters' advice and get back to basics. Like the Nasty Bits, they need to come up with a halfway decent song first, and then worry about how to sing it.

This week's "E.A.B." is more than halfway decent. It's the best Vinyl since this season's promising third and fourth episodes — both of which succeeded by being stylish, funny, eventful, and relatively unpretentious. Here again, Vinyl backs down from trying to be the Very Important Saga of Richie Finestra, Troubled Genius, and instead weaves together several low-stakes stories with top-shelf material.

The first sign that this episode's going to be a fun one comes in the opening five minutes. We see Richie, Zak, and Skip take a slow-motion walk into a bank to apply for a line of credit from one of Zak's old high-school buddies … who then turns them down, because American Century's current business model has "too many ponderables." Everything about the sequence — from the way Skip hugs the banker and undercuts his confident swagger, to the way Zak's pal faux-apologetically stamps a big red "DENIED" on their file — is a beautifully timed piece of comedy. Kudos to the ensemble, to director Jon S. Baird, and to credited screenwriters Riccardo DiLoreto and Michael Mitnick.

The opening generates so much goodwill that it actually helps to smooth out the rest of this fairly scattered episode. By the end of the hour, Zak has signed his Bowie-esque balladeer Gary (and renamed him "Xavier"), Clark has have discovered a hidden world of Latin soul, the Nasty Bits have recorded a hot new song, Devon has renewed her love of photography (and photographers), Andrea has irritated her co-workers by firing American Century's beloved PR man Hal Underwood, and Richie has both secured a loan from the mob and landed in jail thanks to recordings the cops have of him discussing multiple crimes. That's a lot of plot — and none of it's unified around a single theme or purpose beyond "Hey, the finale's coming up in two weeks."

Not all of "E.A.B." lands, either. Yet again, Vinyl fails to give its women the rich character development and personalities that its men enjoy. Andrea's first big scene with Hal quickly turns shrill, despite starting out fairly amusing — with her berating him for his awful new logo ideas, most of which look like penises. Given how sharp a lot of this episode's one-liners are, it's disappointing that Andrea's big zinger is to say that Hal owes his success to the "Peter Principle." That's such a banal, clichéd observation. Coupled with her clunker joke last week about Zak's panty shields, it's worth wondering if Vinyl's creative team knows how to write women as genuinely witty.

That said, Andrea and Hal's second scene — where he freaks out in the American Century lobby, smashes the gold Bread album that he claims he made a hit, flashes his pentagram necklace, then shouts "I call upon the King of Sorrow!" to curse his former co-workers — is gloriously weird. (Let's all salute Jay Klaitz for his unhinged performance as Hal.) And that's just one of several memorable set-pieces in "E.A.B." The aforementioned bank scene is another. So is the scene where Zak meets with Gary/Xavier to give him his contract, and the young singer is so appreciative that he belts out a beautifully spacey ballad in the middle of the restaurant, earning cheers from his fellow diners.

The biggest wow scene in  "E.A.B." is the one that provides the title. When the Nasty Bits are struggling to write something original, Lester grabs a guitar and performs a medley of classic songs that use the same chord progression — connecting the history of popular music via simple shifts from E to A to B. If Lester were around in the 2010s, he could get a few million YouTube hits with this little demonstration. But his point isn't to argue that nothing's original; it's only to say that these three chords are just a foundation.

If there is a theme holding all of this episode's many, many loose pieces together, this may be it: the idea that what "record men" are really buying from musicians is potential, not innovation. Vinyl takes pains to depict the New York of 1973 as fairly scuzzy, as a place where it's hard to take a step without kicking discarded hypodermic needles. There's nothing inherently magical about this city, or even this time. Heck, there may not be anything all that special about Vinyl either, which is just recycling pieces of other anti-hero prestige dramas like Mad Men and The Sopranos. But "E.A.B." contends that there's nothing wrong with formula, or with the rudiments of creativity. Not everything has to be groundbreaking. All an artist really needs to do is to find a firm foundation, stand on it, and then say something true.

It's Only Rock-and-Roll (But I Like It):

  • The Devon scenes this week are fine, though they seem a little shoehorned-in, given that pretty much every other plot thread in "E.A.B." is American Century–related. Her presence mainly seems designed to ease her back into the show after a week off, and to pile on more of Vinyl's rock-and-roll tourism via scenes at the Chelsea Hotel and Max's Kansas City, featuring Bob Marley and the Wailers, plus John Lennon with his mistress, May Pang. At least Devon's ability to trick Lennon and Pang into posing for the camera gets her a little action, courtesy of a fellow photog named Billy McVicar (Richard Short). So, brace yourself for the future scene wherein Richie finds out about their tryst and smashes Billy's equipment or burns down his darkroom or whatever.
  • Clark's abbreviated story line — which sees him bonding with his mail-room cohort, Jorge (Christian Navarro) — is surprisingly enjoyable. Plus, his realization that there's an untapped resource for black and Latin music in poor New York neighborhoods could prove fruitful in the remaining episodes. Lately, I've been reading Ed Piskor's excellent Hip Hop Family Tree comics, the first volume of which tracks the origins of rap and turntablism through the same kind of ’70s New York street parties that Jorge takes Clark to. Vinyl has touched on this scene before with brief appearances of Kool Herc, but it could definitely use further exploration.
  • This is the second week in a row that the show has referred to the Focus song "Hocus Pocus" — a surprise hit that, in the world of Vinyl, made it big in the summer of ’73 thanks to the help and bribery of independent promoter Joe Corso. In the real world, "Hocus Pocus" was recorded in 1971, but wasn't released as a single worldwide for two years. It actually did make it to the Billboard Top 10, which was a super-weird thing to happen, given how heavy and how goofy the track is.
  • Richie needles the cops interrogating him by dropping a reference to the Knapp Commission, a bit of sordid New York history that should be familiar to anyone who's watched movies like Serpico and The Seven Five.
  • There are so many great lines in this episode, but my favorite was Julie complaining about the Nasty Bits' weird sea shanty by quipping, "I can't even hum that one, and half the words were 'hey.'" (By the way, Vinyl writers: There's no reason why Jamie couldn't have been given a joke like that.)
  • I liked how, at Zak's lunch with Xavier, the former eats a steak sandwich with potato chips while the latter has a cantaloupe filled with cottage cheese. It's the little details that matter.

Soundtrack to this review:

  • Fairport Convention, Fairport Chronicles
  • Nick Drake, Bryter Layter
  • Randy Newman, 12 Songs
  • Harry Nilsson, Pussy Cats
  • Blood, Sweat & Tears, Blood, Sweat & Tears