He in Racist Fire
Ato Essandoh as Lester, Juno Temple as Jamie.
Even by the shoddy standards of prestige cable drama, Vinyl has a problem with women. The show has shortchanged its female characters since episode one, and in this week’s “He in Racist Fire,” it becomes blatantly obvious how badly Vinyl’s writers have blundered. There’s still a lot about this show that works just fine: the performances, the milieu, the dialogue, and the music. But all along, there’s been a troubling uniformity of tone, evident in the way women are presented over and over again as shrill, petty, and pitiless. And this week, that is especially hard to ignore.
Let’s take a closer look at the ladies, one by one:
In my otherwise glowing write-up of “The Racket,” I mentioned that while Vinyl has featured a few good Devon moments so far (thanks in large part to Olivia Wilde’s general excellence), the character’s still stuck with a generic “hectoring wife” story arc that gets tedious quickly. And just when I thought the Devon story line couldn’t get any worse, she agrees to join Richie for a business dinner designed to keep Hannibal on the label, which leads to her husband shouting at her and manhandling her. Why? Because she flirted too much.
Everything about Devon’s scenes this week are awful, from Richie’s standard-issue jealous rage to the cheap, racially charged overtones of her and Hannibal dancing in his hotel room, to the way she seems to get turned on when Richie angrily shoves her against a wall. Every one of these elements has been overdone by wannabe-edgy TV shows that mistake brutishness for realism. But even worse, it all forces Wilde to shift Devon into snappish mode, yet again.
Andrea (played by Annie Parisse) is a former American Century secretary who’s made good as a PR specialist and image-groomer for Jackie Jervis’s Koronet Records. When Richie tries to poach Andrea, she lectures him about how his whole label needs a redesign, and she uses Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon as an example of visual innovation. At first, it seems like Andrea will be a great addition to Vinyl, bringing both strength and savvy. But we soon learn that she once had an affair with Richie, and he treated her like garbage. So even when he’s trying to coerce her into rejoining his team, their relationship is still combative — because which relationship isn’t on this show?
Richie’s current secretary (played by Susan Hayward) spent the first three episodes getting sexually harassed. Last week, she finally got a small story line, socializing with Hannibal while Richie was detained at the office. Cece’s even more involved this week, but only because she has become Hannibal’s mistress — which is interfering with her job, and isn’t helping American Century re-sign the funk superstar. So Cece doesn’t really get to do anything, beyond being a cranky, ineffectual honey trap.
Jamie (played by Juno Temple) gets to sit in on a meeting with the Nasty Bits, where she helps explain to Kip the importance of radio promotion, and even offers to write the band’s bio. But she also finds out from Julie that she hasn’t been promoted to the main A&R team — even after the hapless Clark gets demoted to her job — and in her office conversations with Cece and the American Century receptionist, Heather, all three take turns sniping at each other. Later, in bed with a smacked-out Kip, Jamie takes a swipe at Big Star for being commercially unsuccessful. In the race to be the most unappealing woman on Vinyl, she’s way in the lead.
The show hasn’t given her a first name yet, but Jamie’s mom (played by the brilliant Swedish actress Lena Olin) was introduced two weeks ago, when she chased the Nasty Bits out of the basement of her business. She returns this week to chastise her daughter over lunch at an elegant restaurant. Again, here’s a woman who’s been in all of two Vinyl scenes, and in both she’s been hostile. This appears to be the default mode for the show’s female characters — especially when they’re dealing with each other. Outside of one scene in the pilot between Devon and her friend Ingrid, female characters behave one way when they’re alone together: They’re catty.
To be fair, the boys of Vinyl aren’t much kinder. But they’re written in such a way that even their cut-downs are collegial and clever. In one of this week’s major subplots, Kip gets the order from the label to fire his guitarist (who’s really no worse a musician than the rest of the Nasty Bits, but has no stage presence), and there’s far more nuance in the way that story line plays out, and in the way the guys interact, than in anything the gals are saddled with.
As I’ve noted in previous reviews, Vinyl’s portrayal of women is tied to the messed-up gender politics of 1973. But, just as important, it indicates a worrisome lack of imagination about these characters. Some adult-oriented shows up their stakes with gratuitous violence, but the show has been opting for emotional violence. It’s making its characters perpetually irritable, but in its own way, that choice is equally phony and predictable.
As soon as the writers figure out that these women can be witty, compassionate, creative, independent, and even joyous, they may just unlock Vinyl as a whole. There are so many other notes these talented actors and actresses could be playing besides “angry.” For now, not only is “He in Racist Fire” the series’ worst installment yet, but at times it’s so repugnant that it’s hard to imagine the season ever rebounding.
It’s Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It):
- One big reason to lament this dispiriting bummer of an episode is that it starts out so well, with an American Century showcase featuring all the bands that the nervous A&R staffers have recently found for Richie. Just about every major and minor music style of 1973 is represented: Cartoonish Jethro Tull–like prog, a James Taylor–esque singer-songwriter, an ersatz Southern-rock Leon Russell, a power-pop act in matching suits, and more. It’s the episode’s last real moment of fun.
- Actually, I take that back. There’s a very brief, very funny moment when Richie complains that his assistant doesn’t know what a bialy is, followed by an insert shot of a legal pad with sketches of the pastry and the words “Hole? No hole?” Still, after I praised Vinyl’s sense of humor last week, I thought it was a drag to hear so few laugh lines.
- I hope we get more of Ray Romano’s Zak Yankovich soon. This week’s casual mention of how radio stations like WNEW, WMMS, and KSAN might interview the Nasty Bits “with a little encouragement” is a reminder that we haven’t really delved into Zak’s involvement with payola yet. (Also, as I was lamenting Vinyl’s clichéd idea of “hard-hitting” in this episode, it reminded me of how much I miss Romano’s old TNT series Men of a Certain Age, which proved that quality TV drama doesn’t have to be cold and mean.)
- Last week, I failed to recognize David Proval as Richie’s father (and his potential alibi in the Buck Rogers murder). HBO subscribers will know Proval for his performance as Richie Aprile in The Sopranos. So far, his Vinyl character hasn’t gotten much to do, aside from giving his son a name for his new specialty imprint (Alibi Records), and leading the cops to some potentially damaging information.
- The title of this episode is an anagram for “Richie Finestra,” generated by anagram wizard Hannibal. If he heard my name, he might come up with “Rural Money,” “Unmoral Rye,” or “Loamy Rerun.”
- HBO sent five Vinyl episodes before the season started, and many critics watched them all before they filed their pre-air reviews. (I didn’t do that, because when when I’m covering a show every week I only want to know as much as the readers do.) After the superb third and fourth episodes, I wondered if maybe the initially mixed critical reaction would’ve been different if Vinyl hadn’t started out with such a long, heavy pilot and such an awkward, clumsy second episode. After episode five, though, I wonder if I’d have felt differently about the first four episodes if I’d known what lay ahead.
- I hope the folks responsible for “Whispered Secrets” and “The Racket” return next week.
Soundtrack to this review:
- Quincy Jones, Body Heat
- Steely Dan, Can’t Buy a Thrill
- King Crimson, A Young Person’s Guide to King Crimson
- Wilson Pickett, Wilson Pickett’s Greatest Hits
- Solomon Burke, The Best of Solomon Burke