After four episodes, HBO’s “Vinyl” is really starting to heat up. Literally. Episode 4 – “The Racket” – features a massive office fire and some major plot developments. The episode opens with a close up shot of a gospel singer, and reveals he’s singing at the funeral for Buck Rogers.
Several American Century employees including Zak Yankovich, Scott Leavitt, Skip Fontaine and Julie Silver pay their respects. A detective leans over and asks Yankovich if he’s Richie Finestra, and Yankovich replies that Richie wasn’t able to make the funeral. The reason? Besides the fact that Richie had a hand in Rogers’ death, is that Richie is beating his couch senseless with a tennis racket. (A nice piece of editing reminiscent of “Goodfellas” flashes from Richie punching Rogers to Richie with the tennis racket.)
Apparently, the Finestras are trying to repair all the damage that Richie has caused with his various cocaine-fueled escapades with some weirdo experimental ’70s-style couples therapy, where Richie unleashes all his pent-up aggression on the couch with a tennis racket and then, free of anger after a few front-court serves to the cushions, is able to tell Devon the source of his stress. It seems to work. So, I guess the lesson here is if you’re going through marital problems, just smack your couch a couple times with a tennis racket instead of paying some counselor to guide you through the various pitfalls of marriage. The therapist invites Devon to do her best Billie Jean King on the couch, but she (rightfully) says how stupid the whole thing is and that Richie should feel bad about his actions.
After the Buck’s funeral, the disgruntled American Century guys are in the back of a town car bickering about Richie’s missteps as boss and misappropriations of company funds. They all acknowledge that the main problem is Richie’s nose and all the coke that’s going up it. The entire group is expressing concerns over money woes and a particularly interesting plot development ensues.
Head of Sales Skip Fontaine (turns out the “Racket” part of the episode’s title is more than just a tennis racket. What!?) meets with the owner of the record pressing plant about his order of 10,000 extra (fugazi, only took four episodes for this word to appear) copies of the hit Donnie Osmond record. Pink Floyd’s “Money” plays over shots of records being pressed. Apparently, American Century is being audited and bootleg records could cause an inventory problem. Later, Fontaine visits a record store and strong arms his way into prime window placement for Donnie Osmond and some rotation on the store’s turntable. This story line ends with a view of Fontaine’s apartment which is now redecorated with the fugazi Donnie Osmond LPs. It’s another peak inside the shifty dealings of the payola scandals that were so prominent in the ’70s. Apparently, payola is a combination of “pay” and “Victrola,” so there’s a fun fact.
Back at the American Century offices Richie is trying to keep the company afloat, and the company’s funk superstar Hannibal (a sort of Sly Stone funkster) happy with cocaine and women. Another method of stuffing American Century’s stockings with cash is the Robert Goulet Christmas album. The Goulet character, which somehow wasn’t played by Will Ferrell added more than a few comical moments to the hour, especially, when Goulet records his original Christmas song dedicated the day after Christmas – an untapped market.
It’s a pretty big day at American Century, besides the fire in Richie’s office, the Nasty Bits are waiting in the lobby to be signed and Lester Grimes shows up for a meeting with Richie. Not satisfied with Richie’s plan to bring out his early soul music, Lester sets fire to his original master recording of his demo and tosses it into Richie’s trash basket. As the flames leap up in Richie’s office Richie’s frustrated scream morphs into Janis Joplin’s orgasmic vocals and a weird image of the Joplin belting out her song “Cry Baby” in a flaming oasis transposes itself over the offices of American Century. Yeah, I don’t know why they did that either.
Devon, who gets even less air time than usual this week, fed up with Richie’s bullshit, visits a divorce lawyer. The lawyer calls Devon out, saying that she’s not serious about a divorce and that she’s just using this as a card to play against her husband in their next fight. Then the lawyer asks for a $150 check to be made out to Gross. And gets to say the line of the show, “Make it out to Gross,” as in, “That was really Gross.”
Lester storms out, but in an interesting twist, meets up with the Nasty Bits at a nearby bar and schools the punk band on the real world of the record business, and particularly in Finestra’s brand of business. When Richie finally brings in the Nasty Bits to sign their contract, frontman Kip Stevens asks to go over a few deal points with their manager – who turns out to be Lester Grimes! It’s a nice way to keep Lester’s character around. Lester gets the Nasty Bits double what Richie was planning on paying them. Richie asks about the music he heard playing in front of Lester’s building in the first episode and Lester informs him that, yes, that is DJ Kool Herc we saw last week. So, it looks like we’ll have Richie to thank for the birth of punk and hip-hop. What a guy!
Richie is scheduled to make an appearance at Hannibal’s concert, but is held up (doing coke) in his office. The fire might have gone out in Richie’s office, but the heat is still on when two detectives pay Richie a visit and do the good cop, bad cop routine on him to see if they can find out why Richie wasn’t at Buck’s funeral. He cuts her off before she can even tell him she visited the divorce lawyer. Richie calls Devon and tells her he’s staying in the city, and cuts her off before she even she even gets to play her divorce lawyer card. The scene cuts to Devon playing housewife again, at home alone, doing the dishes. She decides to try out that therapy after all, with a frying pan instead of a tennis racket, and a window instead of a couch.
In the final scene Richie descends into a downtown jazz lounge and sits at the bar watching an older trumpet player. The musician sits down beside Richie, inquires if he’s still on the wagon and orders up a few drinks. If you didn’t guess it already the old jazz cat is Richie’s estranged father. But Richie isn’t just there for a father-son drink. He needs an alibi for the night of Buck Rogers’ murder.
This episode was one of the best so far, but as usual my favorite part of the show is the music and they nailed the ending with this gem. Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman.”
“Vinyl” airs on HBO at 9 p.m. on Sundays. Read our recaps here and here.