I’m not quite sure who the target audience is for a show like Vegas. It toes an awkward line between period drama and police procedural, where the historical context peeks out from in between the cracks of a fairly standard case-of-the-week cop show. Those looking for Boardwalk Empire set in Las Vegas will most likely be turned off by the show’s similarities to CSI, Cold Case, Without a Trace, Criminal Minds, NCIS, and every other show that follows this exact same format. Yet at the same time, those who’re just looking for another police procedural probably couldn’t care less about the period setting and the historical significance of a show set in 1960s Las Vegas.
It’s a shame, because there’s probably a supremely entertaining show hidden somewhere in Vegas. You’d just have to sift through hours and hours of blandness to find it.
Vegas stars Dennis Quaid as Ralph Lamb, a tough-as-nails Nevada farmer who’s sick and tired of all these fancy bigwigs (specifically, Michael Chiklis’s Vincent Savino) coming into his territory to erect their shiny new casinos. And as Lamb and Savino first get acquainted with each other and immediately get on each other’s respective bad sides, Lamb (a former military policeman) is called in to investigate the murder of a young woman with important ties to the community.
That’s about all the story we get in the pilot. Savino has some kind of vague plan to take over Las Vegas, and Lamb has some cows he needs to take care of, but other than those little tidbits, the hour is devoted to an incredibly run-of-the-mill murder mystery. The culprit is milquetoast and instantly forgettable, and Lamb has absolutely no personal stake in the case itself. He’s only doing this because the mayor of Las Vegas (who he served with in the military) asked him to.
As a protagonist, Ralph Lamb’s not what you would call captivating. I get the impression that he’s supposed to be this old-fashioned cowboy hero that stands in stark contrast to the slick, big city mobsters, but his dialogue is often plain to the point of being boring. For example, here’s an exchange where Lamb and Savino first butt heads, after Lamb has barged into Savino’s casino, guns a-blazin’.
Savino: “This is my house. You don’t walk into my house. Not unless you want me in yours.”
Lamb: “I am the law here, Mr. Savino. And I will decide who’s breaking it.”
To put it frankly, this is just flat-out boring. A character like Lamb should be the strong and silent type. A goofy quip like “I am the law here” seems completely out of place, and the quip itself doesn’t even have that much zing to it to begin with. It also doesn’t help that most of the time, when Lamb is acting strong and silent, Quaid bugs out his eyes and purses his lips together in a weird and unsettling facial expression. I can’t tell if it’s supposed to be some crazy eyed look that Lamb gets in the heat of the moment, or if he’s just supposed to be concentrating really hard and Quaid picked a weird facial expression to convey that. Either way, it’s somewhat distracting and happens time and time again throughout the course of the pilot.
There are, however, moments where Ralph Lamb legitimately seems like the tough guy he’s supposed to be. The biggest, most obvious example is in the episode’s climactic car chase, where our generic villain aims his car towards Lamb and charges ahead at full speed. Lamb stands perfectly still, sizing up his opponent as though they were dueling in the Old West, and finally shoots out the bad guy’s tires at just the right moment. It’s tense, elegantly simple, and Dennis Quaid isn’t making those googly eyes for the camera. Were there more scenes like this in Vegas, this show could have been a real winner.
So while Lamb is supposed to be the strong, silent type, Chiklis’s Savino is supposed to be the exact opposite- quick-tongued, and easy to provoke into a violent rage. But just like with Lamb, this character never really clicks the way he should. The dialogue’s simply not strong enough to give Savino a genuinely sleazy mobster vibe, and Savino’s dialogue-free moments (where Chiklis can let his imposing physical presence do the talking) are few and far between. As anyone who’s seen The Shield can attest to, Michael Chiklis is the king of strong, silent, and intimidating, and Vegas could have really benefited from giving Chiklis more room to play to his natural strengths. The best moment in the entire episode by far is when Savino arrives by plane and takes his first steps into Las Vegas. He adjusts his hat and surveys the land he plans to conquer with this incredible, imposing swagger that’s never seen again for the rest of the pilot. This is a show that’s primarily about macho men butting heads, and in that kind of situation, the less dialogue, the better.
And there’s not much else in Vegas that really stands out. Some of the period sets and props look outstanding (especially the cars), but there are times when the period setting seems to be a bit phoned in. Part of it is that shows like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire have forever spoiled me on authentic period piece TV, but it doesn’t help that the period setting clashes with the way the show is shot and lit. Vegas is filmed just like the vast majority of network TV dramas- with very basic, repetitive camera work and overuse of lighting to highlight the stars’ faces at all times. Because Vegas looks so similar to every other police procedural out there, it’s easy to subconsciously assume that all these procedurals take place in the same general time period. In fact, the only two shots that really hammer home the 1960s setting are the two that differentiate most from the basic network TV camera style. First is an extended glimpse of the Vegas strip, lit up at night (slowing down the brisk pace TV editing normally takes), and second is a low-angle shot of Lamb, cowboy hat and all, illuminated by the glowing neon of a casino. Just like with the dialogue of the two leads, the camera itself needs to slow down and give Vegas some breathing room and some opportunities to really shine.
But to be honest, I don’t plan on reviewing Vegas on a weekly basis. At this point, the show’s negatives far outweigh the positives, and there are still shows I plan on reviewing that haven’t started their seasons yet (Homeland, I’m looking your way). However, for those who might be still be on the fence, it’s been announced that Jonathan Banks (or, as most people might know him, Mike Ehrmantraut on Breaking Bad) has signed on for a multi-episode arc on Vegas, where he’ll play a mobster that matches wits with Chiklis’s Savino. While I won’t be reviewing this one anymore, I’ll definitely be checking out those episodes just to see the combination of Chiklis and Banks onscreen.
Because frankly, that sounds incredible.
Here’s some notes to end this one on.
- Another example of weak dialogue- Savino’s mob associates are referred to as “Joey Skins, Fat Frankie from New York, and Luca Belli from Detroit.” It’s hard to take a show seriously when the name “Fat Frankie from New York” calls to mind a character with all the subtlety of a fart joke.
- I wasn’t particularly impressed with the music in this pilot, and thought that some more authentic period music, similar to what you’d hear in Boardwalk Empire or Mad Men, could have been much more effective. Imagine my surprise when David Carbonara (the composer of all of Mad Men’s original music) pops up in the credits as the show’s lead composer. How peculiar.
- There’s a scene towards the end of the pilot where Lamb and a character played by Carrie-Anne Moss are interrogating a biker, and the biker starts acting up so Lamb punches him right in the head and says “that was rude” in eerie, high-pitched voice. Then there’s an abrupt cut from the biker back to Lamb, and Lamb has this bizarre, childish pouting expression on his face. The whole thing was so awkward and unexpected that I started laughing out loud, and then spent the next two or three minutes rewinding that sequence (thanks to the magic of On Demand) and watching it over and over again, giggling every time.
- Speaking of Carrie-Anne Moss’s character, the only noteworthy things about her seemed to be that she was played by Carrie-Anne Moss and that she appears to be the only female regular on the show.
Thanks for reading, everybody!