With many new TV shows, there is what I want it to be, and there is what it actually is. Sometimes, what it is turns out to be good enough on its own; at other times, the gap between expectations and execution is too wide for me to accept, fairly or unfairly.
On paper, CBS’ “Vegas” couldn’t be more appealing to me. It has Dennis Quaid, one of my favorite movie actors, facing off against Michael Chiklis, one of my favorite TV actors. It has cowboys going up against wiseguys, and a setting – Las Vegas in the early ’60s, just as a cow town is about to turn into a monument to sin – that evokes Michael Mann’s classic ’80s series “Crime Story.” And one of its producers is Nicholas Pileggi, whose book “Wiseguy” was the basis for “Goodfellas.”
In practice, the “Vegas” pilot (it debuts tonight at 10) is less “Crime Story” and more of a low-fi “CSI” flashback. If it stays that way, I imagine it will do very well with the CBS audience, but my hopes were and are higher.
Quaid plays Ralph Lamb, a real-life World War II veteran(*) and cattle rancher who winds up as the sheriff of Las Vegas at the dawn of the ’60s, as an influx of cash and organized crime prepares to make the city boom. Chiklis is Vincent Savino, one of those mobsters looking to make his fortune in the desert.
(*) Quaid is in his late 50s, while the real Lamb was in his early 30s when he got the sheriff job. Fortunately, Quaid remains perpetually boyish, even if he’s a boy with more lines than in “The Right Stuff” days.
The “Vegas” pilot, directed by James Mangold (“3:10 to Yuma”), gets off to a terrific start. We see Lamb on horseback, getting a herd of cattle to market – as classic a Western image as you can get. And then the herd gets spooked when a plane (the one carrying Savino, it turns out) flies overhead – the gangster movie is battling the Western for supremacy here. The plane lands, Savino is greeted by his local contacts, and Lamb gets into a brawl with three airport employees, easily handling them on his own. (“Cowboy can take a punch!” says one of Savino’s henchmen, impressed.)
Lamb just wants to be left alone to work his ranch, but the march of progress won’t allow it – and when the governor’s niece is found murdered in the desert and the local sheriff is indisposed, Lamb is called on to use the skills he developed as an MP in the war.
To this point, the “Vegas” pilot is lively and fun and makes good use of its two leading men, albeit with both of them on the gruffer end of their usual spectrum. Ralph recruits his brother Jack (Jason O’Mara from “Terra Nova”) to be a deputy because “You’re better with people than I am.” Jack notes that this isn’t a high bar to clear.
Once Ralph, Jack and Ralph’s son Dixon (Taylor Handley) get on the case, though, “Vegas” turns into every other CBS crime procedural you’ve seen in the last 15 years. The period may be earlier, and the technology non-existent, but the beats are the same, including the methodical way our heroes work their way from one suspect to the next to the next.
CBS has made a lot of money with that kind of show, and will continue to. Most of them are well-made and entertaining, and the mystery portion of the “Vegas” pilot is up to that standard. When the Hell’s Angels become suspects, for instance, Ralph leads an old-fashioned round-up that ultimately pits horse against motorcycle. (Three guesses on which one wins.) And Mangold and his crew do a gorgeous job of creating the frontier look of Vegas at this time in history, particularly in a climactic scene that takes Lamb back to the airport, this time with a Winchester in his hand. Condemning a CBS show for being a CBS show seems to be missing the point, I’ll acknowledge.
But there are occasional hints in the pilot that the producers do, indeed, aspire to something grander than weekly whodunnits. Ongoing stories are set up involving Savino’s campaign to take over the town, the whereabouts of the incumbent sheriff, local politics, and more. At a press conference for the show last month, lead producer Greg Walker said the ultimate goal was a structure like “The Good Wife” has: a mix of Case of the Week and bigger arcs, and no strict formula on how much time has to be devoted to either one in each episode.
The ratio in the pilot leads to the most straightforward version of the show possible. Quaid and Chiklis will keep me watching for a while, but in the long run I’d like to see a more ambitious approach to the material.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org