25
Sep
2012
Vegas: Season 1, Episode 1: Pilot
Pilot
Jordan
Ever since Mad Men took off several years back, network television has been hoping lightning will strike twice, and trying their best to recapture what that show does so well, preferably wrapped up neatly in a network package. Shows like Pan Am and The Playboy Club vied for the title last season, and any of you who watched the shows are probably not surprised they aren't beginning their second seasons currently (apologies to fellow RTBN critic Rachel, who quite liked Pan Am for what it was). This time around, CBS seems fairly serious about their foray into period drama. Vegas is the kind of show that's built to make a splash, from its setting (which we'll get to in a moment) to its bankable stars, Michael Chiklis and Dennis Quaid, to its rather stunning direction (handled in the pilot by James Mangold, of 3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line and Girl, Interrupted fame). Yet if you're tuning in to watch CBS take a risk, Vegas isn't the show for you. This is a pilot with several good things going for it, but it is in every sense possible, a CBS procedural.

In its ideal form, Vegas is the story of colorful Las Vegas Sherriff Ralph Lamb (Quaid), an actual historical figure who was more cowboy than lawman and whose life is actually fairly well suited to televised adaptation. The show is also set in a time rife with dramatic tension and thematic signifiance--Las Vegas in the early '60s, a city on the precipice of leaving behind a past as a sleepy western town and becoming a booming den of iniquity. If this sounds like a show you want to be watching, you are not alone. These plot elements are the makings of great television, and I can see a version of Vegas that mines all of this potential and becomes one of the best shows on network television.

Unfortunately, that's probably not what CBS is looking for from it. CBS is a network that gets by on Chuck Lorre comedies and blood drenched procedurals. This is the network of CSI, NCIS and Criminal Minds, and from the looks of this pilot, they would like Vegas to be more akin to those than to its spiritual predecessors, shows like Mad Men and the Vegas-set Crime Story. Where the premise screams for a heavily serialized narrative, a character study of an off-beat law man and his titanic struggle for the soul of a city against a Chicago heavy (Chiklis), the result is something more akin to Castle, but, you know, its the '60s...maybe?

The pilot makes very little use of a lot of its most interesting aspects. Excepting a few shots of a small-scale strip, a few passing lines to how quiet the town was recently, and a (rather thrilling) chase sequence where Quaid rides down a biker on his horse, it can be a little hard to tell this show is supposed to be set in the '60s. Where Mad Men was organically steeped in its period, seeming to have the '60s written into its very DNA, Vegas feels incidentally dropped into an intriguing sounding period, aimed at delivering the same thing you can see on any network procedural. It also makes little use of the interesting characters it populates the pilot with. This is a common problem for shows in their early going, but so far the show reduces its characters to types. Quaid is the lovably eccentric curmudgeon who just gets things done, his son is the affable womanizer, and Chiklis is the heavy with heart, or at least enough business sense not to beat up everyone who crosses him. Oh, and Carrie Ann Moss is there, playing a lady doing lady things, because someone probably realized about halfway through shooting the pilot that it might be nice if there were a lady around in case lady things needed doing. Moss is certainly a serviceable actress, and there is a very real chance the show will have actual things for her to do at some point, but in this pilot, she is the definition of superfluous.

And yet, I have hope for this show. CBS has proven once before, with The Good Wife (which I will finally begin coverage of this Sunday) that it is capable of turning out a stellar procedural drama with enough serialization to keep us hoity-toity plot snobs happy. That show has become far and away the best drama currently on network television, and if Vegas follows its path, I can see this developing into a truly great television show. All of the elements are here for something memorable and worthwhile; the pilot just leaves open the question of whether the show will run with them or remain mired in case-of-the-week plotlines until it shuffles off the air.

This is not a great episode of television. Point of fact, it isn't even nearly as accomplished as the pilot for The Good Wife. What this episode offers is a fairly rote crime procedural story. There's a pretty dead girl, the guy you think did it from the first time you see him did it, there are a few red herrings which not even the show seems to think are convincing, and then the good guys get the bad guy. Moss is there, presumably for the estrogen, and Chiklis floats around the edges like an actor who knows he signed onto this role for potential Emmy nominations but doesn't really see a scene to chew, but mostly, this is Quaid's show, and he carries it well enough, without ever distinguishing Ralph Lamb as a character to the point that I became interested in him. This cast is capable of more, and with this show's pedigree (Mangold is an executive producer, as is Goodfellas writer Nicholas Pileggi) it could very easily get there. For tonight, though, its a murder-she-wrote so straightforward you'll probably forget it by the time the credits roll.

However, as I have alluded to (and directly stated), there is enough here to intrigue me. Mangold has delivered a beautiful pilot, and if his style becomes the house style for the show in future weeks when he isn't behind the camera, fans of great cinematography may get some joy out of Vegas even if there is no other reason to watch it. And seeds are planted tonight that indicate this show does have the higher ambitions I hope for. There's a near great moment when two characters stand in the desert, staring up at power lines and musing about the dream of the future that built them, and while it does not carry the weight of similar monologues on great cable dramas like Mad Men or even Game of Thrones, it does indicate some ambition. And while none of the characters pop tonight, this is only a pilot, and there is every chance that Quaid, Chiklis, and the writing will step up in the coming weeks and develop their archetypes into living, breathing characters. If Quaid can imbue Lamb with the wry sense of legend the man actually possessed, this show may become worthwhile even if it never sheds its procedural roots. And if Chiklis is given free reign to explore the seedy underbelly that was growing in Vegas during this period, he may very well turn in a tour-de-force that will rise above any weakness in the writing.

Vegas will become great if it lets some of its grander ambitions seep in around the procedural elements (which I strongly doubt will ever disappear, and may not need to). This is potentially a show about an aging man with a small town mindset who watches his quiet desert hamlet turn into a booming metropolis, even as he fights against a growing criminal underworld to keep its streets clean. This can be a show about a man with a code trying to make his way in a city that eschews the very idea. It can be a clash between two larger than life figures at a key point in the history of its setting. If Vegas gleans the full potential out of its theoretical themes, its period setting, or its capable actors, this will be a show worth watching. And if not, well, how long has it been since you watched a procedural set in the city of sin? If you're still watching CSI, don't answer that.

Grade: B

Notes:

-I know this show needed some ladies, but I'm reasonably certain a small back water burb like Vegas wouldn't have a female ADA in the early '60s.

-There are some clunky attempts at noir-tinged humor tonight."Cowboy can take a punch, huh?" and "Maybe I can talk to Blanchard." "Take away the maybe." Both made me cringe.

-On the other hand, here are two lines that worked for me: "Send him in. That's French for 'we're done.'" "I am the law here, Mr. Savino. And I will decide who's breaking it."

-Currently, I do not plan to cover Vegas going forward, or even to watch it for the time being, though I will be keeping tabs on the show to see if it is worth catching up on in the coming weeks or months. As always, though, if there is an overwhelming desire in the comments, I may be persuaded to pick it up, and if this show becomes what it might, you can expect to see me back in this space in season two, extolling the virtues of what I hope will become a great show. If not, well, this has been our coverage of Vegas.
Tags: Vegas
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