VEGAS: Tuesday 10PM on CBS – Potential DVR Alert
VEGAS is CBS’s version of swinging for the fences, which is to say that it can also be seen as a neon-lit, gold-edged version of Longmire. This time the widowed western lawman is Ralph Lamb, a real (although probably quite fictionalized) rancher who became a sheriff. But the setting is 1960-era Las Vegas, exactly the time of the Frank Sinatra Rat Pack’s version of Ocean’s 11. The Strip, not yet dominated by corporate behemoth resorts, was in the tender hands of the Mob, and their hotels bordered cattle land instead of strip malls.
Procedurals don’t come more high-powered than Vegas. Lamb is played by Dennis Quaid, making his TV series debut, while the mob is represented by Michael Chiklis, as Vincent Savino, an East Coast heavy-hitter who’s been brought in to protect the interests of the Family. Assistant District Attorney Katherine O’Connell, whose family has a history with Lamb’s, and who’s a clear potential romantic interest, is Carrie-Ann Moss. Lamb’s brother Jack, who becomes his deputy, is played by Jason O’Mara. In addition, Sarah Jones, star and highlight of last season’s Alcatraz, is joining the cast as one of Savino’s associates, and Lamb’s other deputy, his somewhat reckless son Dixon, is Taylor Handley. The script is by Nicholas Pileggi, who knows a little bit about gangsters and Las Vegas as co-writer of Goodfellas and Casino, with Greg Walker, a longtime writer/producer on Without A Trace. The pilot is directed by James Mangold, of Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma.
With all that, the show is still a procedural, and the relatively routine murder plot that drives the pilot is its weakest aspect. The mobsters aren’t drawn with any of the kind of shading we’ve grown to expect from ambitious movies and cable shows over the past few decades (including the ones written by Pileggi). But you just can’t argue with a cast like this–the question is whether the material will be substantial enough to support them all. Quaid, who never quite became the Hollywood superstar he seemed on the verge of becoming in the days of The Right Stuff and The Big Easy, is a terrifically comfortable fit in the role of Lamb, able to carry off with aplomb a moment like marching down the length of a casino to make an arrest, shotgun in hand. Chiklis is more a menacing presence in the pilot than a lead character, but one assumes that while this role will never approach Vic Mackey, he’ll have much more to do as the series goes on. Moss looks fetching in the period costumes, while O’Mara’s role is mostly just just to do what his brother tells him.
The pilot looks terrific (the cinematography is by Kramer Morganthau, who’s worked on Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire, as well as shooting the pilot for last year’s The Playboy Club). Although pilots always have bigger budgets than series episodes, so there’s no guarantee the quality will be duplicated later on, the basic visual design of contrasting the desert plains with the early, smaller-scale casinos of the era, echoing the conflict between Quaid’s style and the gangsters’, and covering in the hour everything from horses to jets, is very effective and distinctive.
As a period piece with a mostly middle-aged cast, Vegas is going to skew old, but it still has a good chance of romping in the Tuesday 10PM timeslot. It matches well with its NCIS lead-ins, and it’s the only male-oriented show airing against what will probably be the last season of Private Practice and the always-on-the-bubble Parenthood. It should certainly outperform last season’s Unforgettable. As entertaining a the Vegas pilot is, it’s also is a little frustrating, because with this kind of talent involved, it could have aimed far higher and probed its characters and fascinating setting more deeply. But CBS, in the end, isn’t a network that goes all in. It’s just the one at the end of the night that has the most chips in its hand.