*This post contains spoilers for Episode Three: ‘Whispered Secrets’*

Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, The Sopranos writer Terence Winter, HBO, a bottomless soundtrack budget… On first look Vinyl seems like the biggest open goal in TV history. So why have the first two episodes garnered such a tepid response? Only the tunes have proved as explosive as the subject matter so far, with messy plot lines staggering all over the sidewalk just like the permanently blotto characters.

Last week we left music exec Richie (Bobby Cannavale) on a coke-fuelled rampage after cancelling a label sale to some square-looking Germans. Wife Devon was royally pissed-off and central band The Nasty Bits – whose frontman is played by James ‘Thanks, Dad’ Jagger – were being forced to learn Kinks hits, much to their obvious disgust.

There’s good news though, as this week’s third instalment really took things up a notch.

Rockstar antics

‘Whispered Secrets’ is a real brain-twister of an episode because it takes all the things which made the first two outings so toe-curlingly cliched and somehow makes them work. The cringey ‘look-at-that-famous-rockstar’ cameos remain, but instead of campy Robert Plant we get smoky, scheming Alice Cooper. Dustin Ingram is excellent as The Godfather of Shock Rock, cleverly leading A&R muppet Clark Morelle (Jack Quaid) down the garden path before making him look like a right melon, literally. Plus Cooper decked out in dazzling golf whites with pet python in tow is as funny a moment as we’ve had so far.

Played by John Cameron Mitchell, Andy Warhol’s frumpy foibles aren’t annoying anymore either. When Devon is forced to practically beg her old mate for a signed painting to sell (to inject some cash into her Eastern European dance troupe) his sly probing creates the kind of dangerous tension we’re used to from Scorsese. Her convincing waterworks, captured through Warhol’s rolling camera lens, are equally stirring.

Ghosts of the past

The frequent flashbacks to happier times (ie loads of shagging) still aren’t clicking. Richie and Devon’s backstory (oddly similar to Terence Winter’s other TV power couple Tony and Carmela Soprano) is so thinly spread it feels like their relationship reached its narrative peak a couple of hours into the series. It’s a relief when the record flips from vitriolic slanging matches to Richie’s other bubble-bursting problems. Primarily the fact he’s an accidental accomplice to the brutal murder of radio kingpin Frank ‘Buck’ Rogers, who’s rotting corpse is pulled from a river mid-episode. Finestra, already suffering periodic brain attacks from the stress, isn’t coping too well either. You can be sure this dilemma isn’t going away anytime soon.

When he’s not turning to narcotics for solace, Richie’s trying to resurrect old partnerships. In this case it’s former blues protégé Lester Grimes (Ato Essandoh). I say former as poor Lester won’t be hitting the high notes anymore – he’s had his vocal chords crushed by a nasty bald mobster. Richie double-crossed him, of course.

This week, Lester’s scenes are far and away the best (only Warhol comes close). Scorsese’s satin smooth cinematography perfectly captures the hopelessness of Grimes’ situation as he croaks his way through practice, and there’s a nicely done Howlin’ Wolf tribute to boot. He plays the role of musical innovator, clunkily serving as the viewers conduit to ‘new’ music when he encourages a young DJ to ignore the criticism of some crusty old-timers. “I don’t know that you’re making anything… but I do think you’re trying.”

Oldies aren’t goodies

Back across town in the world of white new music, wannabe-punks The Nasty Bits are struggling to spark Richie into signing them. That is until ambitious assistant Jamie Vine (Juno Temple) provokes them into ditching The Kinks with a neatly aimed bottle shot. Then it’s back to bratty Sex Pistols-esque rock and roll, and into the Finestra fold. Job done.

Except it isn’t really, as Jagger doesn’t have half the swagger his dad does and his wooden acting almost derails Temple’s attempts to provide an interesting counter-plot to Finestra’s riveting meltdown. The Nasty Bits only saving grace is the music, which is actually nicked from mythical pre-punk rockers Jack Ruby and re-recorded by Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, so we shouldn’t be shocked how ace they sound. It’s just more proof that when Scorsese and co stick to reimagining the past – rather than simply referencing it – ‘Vinyl’ really starts to pop.

So please Marty, let’s have no more hackneyed rockstar impersonations that don’t add to the story. Lou Reed’s still spinning in his grave from episode two. Black sunglasses and all.

Best lines

“Those assholes out there, they don’t care about music. That’s why they make money.” – Record company owner Maury Gold on his fellow industry execs.

“People change themselves or they don’t. Willingness is the key.” – Ruined musician Lester Grimes.

“How many melons must give their lives for your fucking ego?” – Roadie to Alice Cooper during a rehearsal of one of his infamous guillotine stage-tricks.

“Somebody tell Clive to leave the records alone. We don’t have a train to catch.” – An old-time James Brown fan complains about a youngster mixing his beloved vinyl.

“While you’re at it, see if she can say a prayer for this fucking company.” – Zak Yankovich, Richie’s downcast American Century confidante.