3.5 out of 5 stars

Stop the clocks, because, for the second week in a row, I enjoyed an episode of Vinyl. “The King and I” was a tightly-scripted and entertaining hour of television that was also surprisingly funny at times—something of a first for this series. All kudos to this week’s writer, David Matthews, who expertly juggled some very funny fish-out-of-water scenes in California with a depressingly accurate depiction of the extent of Richie’s (Bobby Cannavale) addiction. That’s not an easy balance to pull off, but Matthews managed it with ease, making this easily the best episode so far.

California Dreaming

It helped that this was a very clearly focused hour. Apart from a couple of brief scenes with Jamie (Juno Temple) and Clark (Jack Quaid), the plot was all about Richie, Zak (Ray Romano) and their terrible relationship of lies and mistrust. Full credit to Romano, who makes me genuinely care for poor put-upon Zak even though he’s a largely terrible human being with a heavy drink problem and pretty much no social skills. As I mentioned last week, one of the most interesting things about Vinyl is the constant hints that American Century is not a successful record company, and the more we see of the inner workings of the company the truer that impression feels.

That said, this week we were finally given a chance to see Richie clean, sober, and vaguely in control. Turns out that when not shoving half of Colombia’s national product up his nose, he’s sharp, funny, and genuinely charismatic. For the first time, I understood why everyone in the company might hang off his every word—it’s just a shame that it’s taken us seven weeks to get to this point.

That problem with pacing is probably Vinyl’s biggest flaw. I can see why they thrust us straight into Richie’s spectacular fall from grace. It probably sounded great in the pitches; meaty stuff for the actors to chew on, rock n’ roll it’s so crazy, whooo-hoo, etc, etc—but actually it’s hard to care about a character who’s at his worst from the very beginning. Had we even spent an hour or two with Richie before the decline then we might have felt far more involved.

In fact, seeing Richie schmooze his way round L.A before heading to Las Vegas to pitch the perfect pitch to Elvis Presley, was hugely entertaining—yet what made the episode was the swift slap to the face delivered by the bleak ending. Richie is an addict, and like any addict he has to find something to fill the empty hole inside. The reveal that he’d taken the money from the sale of the private plane and gambled it all away while Zak slept with two women was pretty bad. The realisation that he was simply going to let Zak believe that it was his fault and the women had stolen it a gut punch. It arguably pushed Richie beyond the realms of redeemable and yet at the same time it was horribly realistic. Addicts lie to themselves and to others the whole time. Richie’s behaviour, while awful, was entirely in character. Whether that’s too bleak a reality to watch on a TV show remains open to debate.

Fame, Fame, Fatal Fame

The crux of the episode came with Richie’s meeting with Elvis. This was not the King in his prime but rather the befuddled, dazed and confused Vegas singer, squeezed into his jump suit and performing cheesy ditties to old ladies, a salutary lesson about the price of fame. Richie’s pitch to him was almost Don Draper-esque in its passion, and for a moment we had a glimpse of a world where both men managed to save what is left of their souls. Sadly, it wasn’t to be, thus Richie staggered away from Colonel Tom Parker’s malevolent eye to gamble what remains of his fortune away while Elvis sadly staggered off to bed with only the memories of what was and might have been to sustain him.

Sleeve Notes:

  • This was an episode packed with great cameos, from Elvis to Mama Cass and Stephen Stills. Best of all was the meeting with a decidedly blissed out Gram Parsons, who tried to sell Richie on the beauty of the Joshua Tree to no avail. I’m not sure I can truly trust Richie’s musical judgment if he doesn’t really appreciate the glory of Gram.
  • It was also an episode heavy in death. Parsons would die later that year (overdosing near the Joshua Tree he so eloquently memorialised). Mama Cass would choke to death the following year. Elvis would be dead by 1977.
  • The conversation between Clarke and Jamie was interesting, although to be honest I find it hard to care about Clarke’s mail room struggles except to hope that he learns something about his own sense of arrogant entitlement.
  • That said, nice use of the oldest trick in the book (“here have some free drugs”) to win his colleagues over and I also give him extra points for summing up Julie and Richie as liking “blow jobs, coke and the sound of their own voices”. Good point, well made, Clarke.
  • Also making a good point: Zak with his anti-Elvis rant “This is a tragedy”. You’re right, Zak. It’s so hard when your heroes fall.
  • I’m amused by how terrible Zak is with famous people. First David Bowie, then Colonel Tom Parker. He’s definitely a ‘keep behind the scenes, stay away from the talent’ man.
  • Jamie’s wealthy twisted family life doesn’t quite grab me the way I think it’s supposed to, although it is enjoyably poisonous.

Song of the Week:

Only one contender here: the wonderfully cheesy “18 Yellow Roses”, as played by Marty Robbins over the flashback of Richie’s gambling spree.

Quote of the Week:

Never leave New York, the anger suits you.

—the L.A exec might have a point, but actually I quite enjoyed California Richie with his disdain for the golden life.

So what did you think? Are things finally coming together? What did you think about Zak and Richie’s trip? Can Richie possibly redeem himself after that ending? And if not then what exactly is going on with this show? As ever all speculation is welcome below…