In the last episode, Richie Finestra’s mentor, Maury Gold, scolded him at an industry function, saying that his plan to reinvent American Century as the home for adventurous new music was dangerously naïve. Gesturing toward a ballroom full of record label fatcats, Maury scoffed, “They don’t [care] about music. That’s why they make money.”
A lot of what’s promising and exciting about Vinyl is that it’s set in an era when formerly underground cultural movements were so popular that corporate media couldn’t avoid them anymore. If labels run by conservative, Sinatra-loving, middle-aged white men wanted to be profitable, they had to do business with shaggy-haired, doped-up freaks who produced tuneless, thumping noise … or they had to get super-creative with the paperwork to make it look like they were doing boffo. Richie’s American Century does both, but the balancing act may be impossible.
This week’s terrific episode is about the business side of show business, and the different songs and dances that mucky-mucks must do to keep their entertainers and shareholders happy. The shortest episode yet — it clocks in at a tight, fat-free 50 minutes — “The Racket” takes place over the course of one day, as American Century puts out the red carpet for one of its top acts, the funk-rocker Hannibal (played by Daniel J. Watts). While that’s going on, the Nasty Bits arrive at the office to sign their contract, and Lester pops by to shut down Richie’s plan to release his old blues recordings. Meanwhile, Skip Fontaine (J.C. MacKenzie) becomes the latest American Century exec to get his own subplot, as he scrambles all over the city, trying to put the kibosh on the production of thousands of counterfeit Donny Osmond albums.
That last thread may seem pretty minor in comparison to what’s going on back at the Brill Building, where Richie has to juggle demanding musicians and deal with police inquiries into the death of Buck Rogers. But it’s really the key to “The Racket,” and maybe even the whole series. Back in the pilot, Zak Yankovic explained to the Polygram folks that none of American Century’s releases are ever “flops,” even if they don’t sell. Here we see a little of what he means by that, as Skip hassles record-plant operators and Sam Goody managers to press pause on a fairly common scam. Because record stores could get their money back on unsold albums, some industry hustlers bribed manufacturers to press extra, undocumented copies, which a retail-chain warehouse would hold for a reasonable amount of time and then ship back, sharing the refund with the accomplices.
This scheme matters to “The Racket” because it illustrates both the wheeler-dealer acumen and eventual irrelevance of American Century’s old guard. Richie wants a new breed of “record men,” who are plugged into what’s happening around the city — guys who can discover a Bette Midler performing in a gay bathhouse. Zak, Scott, Julie, Skip: They’re living embodiments of what Maury Gold was saying. They don’t know much about music, but they know how to get paid. This episode ends with a fitting image to define Skip’s place in the recording industry of 1973: He’s dwarfed by dozens of boxes stuffed with illicit albums, all of which feature the songs of a lightweight teen idol.
The big question is whether Richie’s really all that different from his staff of yahoos. Much of the episode’s pleasure comes from seeing this self-declared visionary forced to schmooze it up like any other suit. For Hannibal, he does a pandering Soul Train strut, then provides him with cocaine and female companionship, along with a reminder of their shared past of mutual struggle. And yet, he still seems to be in danger of losing the funk superstar to Jackie Gervais, who takes every opportunity to make it seem like American Century will be too distracted with Richie’s crazy new business model to take care of Hannibal’s needs.
Meanwhile, what should’ve been a quick Nasty Bits signing ceremony gets complicated. Blame Lester: The Hannibal circus delays Richie just long enough for him to give the young proto-punkers a quick primer on contracts. Lester’s big speech about artistic expression versus corporate nickel-and-diming is beautifully delivered by Ato Essandoh, and it’s one of the series’ highlights thus far. It’s even more fun when the raspy bluesman volunteers to be the Nasty Bits’ manager, then makes Richie squirm by asking for a higher signing bonus and creative control, testing that newfound “artists first” braggadocio.
Less fun is the Devon subplot. (This seems to be a pattern, doesn’t it?) The relative weakness of the Devon material isn’t the fault of Olivia Wilde, who’s been fantastic. And it’s not because there’s nothing interesting about the plight of a rich record executive’s wife, circa 1973. It’s more that Devon has been made into a buzzkill; she’s an obstacle that Richie must overcome.
Nonetheless, Devon actually gets a lot to do this week. She starts out in marriage counseling with Richie (who works through his frustrations by beating a couch with a tennis racket, giving the episode’s title its second meaning); she later consults a divorce attorney in hopes of scaring her husband a little (though he’s too busy at work to notice the power play). Throughout, she openly admits that she doesn’t want to patch things up, because that would reward Richie for being a selfish jerk. “I want him to feel worse,” she says. And that certainly doesn’t make her ingratiating, at least as a TV character.
Tonally, the Devon material is still out of synch with the rest of this show. It’s consistently dour where the rest of the Vinyl is fairly lively. Thematically, however, her story line’s been on-point. Her trip to the divorce lawyer fits into the middle of an episode that begins with American Century’s executives bickering over a limo, and ends with Richie visiting an old friend at a jazz club to work on an alibi for the night of Buck’s murder. Vinyl is a drama about passion, art, and culture in transition. What we’ve been learning each week is that, in the case of all three, everything’s negotiable.
It’s Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It):
- Can we take a moment to recognize how funny Vinyl is? This week’s credited writer is Debora Cahn, a veteran of the fast-paced, witty dramas The West Wing and Grey’s Anatomy. Her script is filled with great lines: “Don’t roll your eyes, put it into the couch,” “He’s been at lunch since breakfast,” “I just bought a bumper-pool table, I can’t be out of work right now,” and more. My favorite is when Richie launches into another grand promise to Hannibal, then realizes halfway through he has no idea what to say: “We’re gonna have a goddamn vegetarian orgy! Rice! … [long pause] … Whatever you want.”
- S.J. Clarkson’s direction of “The Racket” is less flashy than Mark Romanek’s last week, with only a few eye-catching zooms that could be called “stylistic flourishes.” But that’s not a knock on Clarkson’s work in any way; great directing isn’t always about unusual camera placement or dynamic movement. I loved what Romanek did, but “The Racket” looks nice, too. Clarkson manages all the “bunch of actors in a room” scenes very well.
- Four episodes in, not much time has passed. How do we know that? Because Zak’s face is still bruised from when Richie did his Bruce Lee impression all over him in episode two.
- During Zak and Scott’s lunch, they toss out a slew of new names of (presumably) fictional American Century bands, including the Penny Flyers, the Tin Cups, and Wilson & Chick. As much as I like the use of real musical acts on this show, part of me would enjoy a Vinyl that was more like the rock-and-roll version of Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, taking place in a universe filled with superheroes (or, in this case, musicians) who are sort of like the ones we know, but not quite.
- There’s only one major “actor playing real-life musician” moment in this episode, and it’s an incredibly unlikely one: Matt Bogart as Robert Goulet, whom American Century has asked to record a cash-generating Christmas album. The faux-Goulet is responsible for two of this week’s funniest moments: His original ballad about the day after Christmas is hilariously maudlin, but it’s even better when Hannibal geeks out about seeing Goulet in the hallway. (“You’re Lancelot!”)
- Where’s the scene-at-the-pressing-plant shot? If Vinyl had been made a decade or so ago, it might’ve been hard to find a nearby factory that churns out records the old-fashioned way. Now, the format’s revival is so robust that labels sometimes have to place orders for pressings way, way in advance, lest they risk shipping the vinyl versions of their albums late.
- About a year ago, I channel-surfed my way to the 1975 McCloud episode “Park Avenue Pirates,” in which Dennis Weaver’s cowboy cop goes undercover as a country-music manager to expose the mafia’s ties to the recording industry. I was so fascinated by the complexity of the crime — which resembles the Osmond caper in this week’s Vinyl — that I started devouring every book and old Rolling Stone article I could on the payola, piracy, and remaindered-record scandals of the 1970s. My uncle worked at Casablanca Records back then, so I’d heard a little about the debauchery, but I had only a passing familiarity with the corruption (thanks mostly to a couple of old WKRP in Cincinnati episodes). So, yeah: If the rest of this season were exclusively about those useless boxes of Donny Osmond albums, I’d be okay with that.
Soundtrack to this review:
- Nazareth, Greatest Hits
- The Everly Brothers, The Everly Brothers Show
- Isaac Hayes, Shaft: Music From the Soundtrack
- The Beach Boys, Holland
- Carole King, Tapestry