I am starting to worry about Richie Finestra.
Not worry about his welfare – although he really ought to take it easy with the Peruvian Marching Powder and the drunk driving – but about what he’s doing to the show around him.
Because Vinyl is a great show around the edges: the music is great, the supporting characters are engaging (Ray Romano’s Zak, Max Casella’s Julie, and recent arrival Annie Parisse’s Andi Z. in particular), the period detail is convincing, and the general feeling of excitement that comes with being in the record business in 1973 New York feels as close as we’re going to get without a time machine.
But the guy at the center of it all is not very easy to root for. His steadily escalating coke rampage has gone from amusing to horrifying, and in this episode he crossed the line into being a fully certified creep – an unpleasant presence at the office, at home, and everywhere else he stuck his white-powdered nose.
Much has been made in the blogosphere of the preponderance of antiheroes in our current Golden Age of TV Drama – your Tony Sopranos, your Don Drapers, your Walter Whites. Each of those characters was unsavory in their own way, but viewers were able to stick with them because for all their flaws, they were all hypercompetent in their chosen fields (Waste Management, Advertising, and Meth Production, respectively).
Richie is clearly meant to be an antihero in a similar mold, with his wild mood swings, his dismissive, borderline-misogynistic treatment of his wife, his disinterest in the input of his business partners, and his aforementioned escalating coke habit. The problem is, he doesn’t seem to be particularly good at his job, as his only priority at the moment appears to be starting a new label on the strength of The Nasty Bitz, a band the show keeps telling us is amazing, but keeps showing us is hobbled by bad guitarists and is led by a junkie with little apparent interest in anything other than being a junkie.
Indeed, the only thing Richie’s done that appears to be at all productive since killing the Polygram deal is hiring Andrea, who wastes no time pointing out to the executive staff (and the audience) that American Century is hopelessly stodgy, from its roster to its offices to its toilet-shaped logo – all things that Richie has his fingerprints all over.
Richie’s intervention at the Nasty Bitz' audition for a new guitarist is a perfect case in point: he shows up zonked and sweaty, listens to nobody, and shows his rapport with his new franchise player by threatening him before storming out. “Muscling the artist,” Lester deadpans. “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Zak, for one, had clearly lost all interest in working with his bleary-eyed, erratic partner even before Richie showed up six hours late to Zak’s daughter’s bat mitzvah, and is immediately charmed by Andi’s return. Her easy way with artists – shown in masterful fashion in this episode when she takes Zak to meet Ziggy-era David Bowie – stands in stark contrast to the bellowing, overdone ass-kissing that Richie greeted Hannibal with last week, and seems to renew Zak’s interest in his chosen profession. Note the way that Zak scares Bowie off by bringing up business too soon – when Bowie leaves, Zak apologizes, and Andi warmly reassures him that it’s no problem. Would Richie have handled it that way, or would he have called him an asshole in front of the Spiders From Mars?
When Zak takes notice of the young singer from the cheesy cover band he hired for his daughter playing a stellar solo version of Bowie’s “Life On Mars?” it seems he has both a new mentor and a new project, and it will be interesting to see if Richie – or the show – will allow this promising new plotline to develop.
Devon, meanwhile, also sick of Richie’s nonsense, is haltingly reasserting the person she left behind when she married Richie by assisting her old Factory girlfriend Ingrid and her sculptor beau on a new project. She seems keen to salve the wound of Richie’s slut-shaming – doubly hurtful because he himself threw her at Hannibal in hopes of keeping him on the label – by offering herself to the sculptor. He politely but firmly turns her down, but not before inadvertently describing Devon’s plight while discussing Ingrid’s desire to get married by saying, “She wants to be conventional in an unconventional paradigm.” Devon certainly wanted to be conventional with the wedding and the kids and the big house in the country, but now she’s chafing against it, going so far as to describe the creaking she hears in the big old house as the sound of her swinging by her neck from the rafters. When she returns to the house and is immediately greeted by that very same creaking sound, she’s soon joined by a momentarily contrite Richie, who apologizes for everything and promises to quit with the coke, before turning on a dime and resuming the volatile behavior that drove her out in the first place.
Richie’s casual mention that he’s been hanging out with Ernst – the fourth party in Richie, Devon, and Ingrid’s perpetual double-date in the Factory era – while Devon was away reveals why the Finestras sobered up in the first place: Ernst died in a debauched car crash, with Richie behind the wheel and Devon and Ingrid in the backseat. Appropriately horrified to learn that Richie’s bender is bent enough to include extended hallucinations, she finally packs up the kids and gets out of the house, hopefully to do something more interesting than wait around for Richie. Devon has great potential as a character, both because of her backstory and the actress playing her, but she has been underserved in the first half of the season, and I hope that her departure isn’t yet another bluff on her part.
As for Richie, I’m not sure what I’d like more: for Devon’s departure to be a true Rock Bottom that leads him to mend his ways and rejoin the living, or for him to become a living symbol of the decadence that will, as we know, eventually lead to the downfall of his industry.
Either way, it feels like something’s got to give: either Richie’s drug problem, or our sympathy for Richie. I am more than ready to watch a show about Andi and Zak reviving American Century and stealing it out from under its drug-addled founder.
-If it was supposed to be a shocking surprise that Ernst was a hallucination at the end of the episode, mission not accomplished. The clues were big and obvious enough that I’m going to assume we were meant to guess in the first five minutes.
-The actor that plays Bowie looks uncannily like the real thing from the neck up, but the rest of him is about 40 pounds too heavy to be Ziggy Stardust, who was on a strict diet of whole milk, red peppers, and cocaine around this time. That’s nitpicking, though – he does a great job of portraying Bowie’s warm English gentlemanhood, something he retained through all of his many reinventions.
-I can’t figure out why they cast an actor who looks so uncannily like Brian Jones, the Rolling Stones' founding guitarist who died in 1969, to play Ernst the German Art Groupie, particularly considering Mick Jagger is an executive producer on this show. It’s distracting.
-For all his talk about finding the Next Big Thing and being on the bleeding edge, Richie sure listens to a lot of oldies.
-Zak, on hearing about the Biafra benefit: “What is that, a disease? By Africa?”
-John Cameron Mitchell, best known for creating the recently revived Broadway smash Hedwig and the Angry Inch, returns as the famously reclusive Andy Warhol, whose bravery in leaving the Factory is rewarded with an attack from a paranoid Richie. “This is why I hate to go out.”
-David Bowie’s “Life On Mars?” is an astonishingly difficult song to play and even harder to sing – I’ve been trying to learn it since he died – so maybe Zak does have better ears than he’s been given credit for.
-This was the first episode sent to critics with the opening credits included, so I’m just now seeing them They’re cool!
-For the first time in the series, there is no music over the closing credits. Can we take this to mean that the music has stopped, and Richie is going to sober up? Or that the music has stopped because Devon’s had enough?
The Champs – “Tequila”
Buddy Holly – “Peggy Sue”
The Troggs – “With A Girl Like You”
Mulatu Astatke – “Tezeta (Nostalgia) - Melynga”
Little Richard – “Keep a Knockin’”
James Brown – “I Got Ants In My Pants (And I Need To Dance)”
Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats – “Rocket 88”
David Bowie – “Suffragette City”
Iggy and the Stooges – “Raw Power”
Dionne Warwick – “One Less Bell To Answer”
The Stooges – “No Fun”
Looking Glass – “Brandi You’re a Fine Girl” (cover version)
The Association – “Cherish” (cover version)
Them – “Here Comes The Night”
David Bowie – “Life On Mars?” (cover version)
Buddy Holly – “Rave On”