Cowboys vs. Gangsters! That’s what we get on CBS’s new period crime drama, Vegas, with Dennis Quaid as the cowboy (Sheriff Ralph Lamb) and Michael Chiklis as the gangster (casino owner Vincent Savino). It’s set in a time and place ripe for exploitation – Las Vegas in 1960. Series writer and producer Nicholas Pileggi (who adapted Goodfellas from his own book, Wiseguy) has explored this territory before. Unfortunately, the result was Casino, a good-looking but oddly tepid gangster film I mostly remember for featuring Sharon Stone performing a sex act on Joe Pesci, a scene suggestive of some bizarre interspecies mating out of Star Trek or Alien.
Ralph Lamb is apparently based on a real rancher-turned-lawman, as you could probably guess from the name. Given their freedom, the writers would probably not have city officials barking ‘’Get Lamb out here!” every time a body turns up. (Don’t think they’d have gone for ‘’Ralph’’, either.)
And…I’ll be honest. Of the two new shows I’m recapping, at this point I actually like The Mob Doctor better. Maybe that’s because I went into it half-expecting to howl with derision, and was pleasantly surprised, while I was kind of hoping Vegas would be awesome. It isn‘t. It‘s not terrible, either; it‘s more just okay. And when you’ve assembled Quaid, Chiklis, and Carrie-Anne Moss, dressed everyone up Mad Men-style, recreated the old Vegas strip, and hired horse trainers, things should be better than okay. Like Casino, the series looks good, but suffers a lack of energy. None of the main characters seem to have quite enough to do or say at this point to justify bringing in such heavyweights, and neither Chiklis nor anyone else seem to own their role as William Forsythe does Constantine on The Mob Doctor.
Despite the elaborate set-up, the pilot played as a straightforward police procedural. We‘re introduced to Lamb on his ranch outside Vegas, where he’s just rounded up his cattle, only to have them stampeded by the plane bringing Savino into town. Apparently this is part of an ongoing conflict Lamb has with the airport, whose corrupt (of course) officials are paid off (of course) by the casino owners. So he heads to the airport to complain and ends up taking on pretty much the entire staff and winning, in the first of the night’s big fight scenes. ’’That cowboy can take a punch,’’ notes Savino admiringly.
Next we cut to Savino’s casino (that rhymes!), where we meet a lot of showgirls with hot-pink plumage along with the mayor, who’s apparently running for re-election. I spent most of the episode thinking the mayor was played Jim Beaver, aka Bobby on Supernatural; it turns out he’s played by Michael O’Neill, but according to IMDb, both actors played the same role on Days of Our Lives at different times, so I wasn’t wildly off.
The festivities are cut short when the governor’s niece is found murdered out in the desert; the body was dumped on a nuclear test site, then found in a routine sweep before the next blast. This is the kind of local history (it seems frivolous to call it local color) I wish the show made more of – the different uses made of the American West in the twentieth century; for example, as testing ground and as well as playground. Though other than a reference to the power generated by Hoover Dam, we don’t get any more of that tonight.
Anyway, the mayor asks for Lamb, as the actual sheriff is MIA. I think Lamb is some sort of deputy, but I’m a little hazy on this. Conveniently, Lamb’s in handcuffs in the back of a squad car after the airport incident. It turns out the mayor was Lamb’s commanding officer in WWII, when Lamb, an MP, solved the case of a serial killer preying on girls near their base in Italy, and was then called away to a top-secret unit. Meanwhile, Savino roughs up one of his own guys for roughing up another guy without his say-so. I assume this is meant to establish him as ruthless, but obedient to his own principals.
The dead girl is named Samantha Meade; she ran away from her rich family for the love of a ranch hand named Cale (not Kale) Green. Cale drinks, and feared Samantha was two-timing him, but Lamb doesn’t see him as the killer. Cale works out in the desert, and I must say the show does have a nice line in classic Western-style cinematography, all vast skies and distant horizons.
By this point we’ve met Assistant District Attorney Katherine O’Connell, played by Carrie-Anne Moss, who I loved in Fido. She’s an old friend – their dads were once in a water-rights dispute – and, I assume, future love interest. (Lamb’s a widower). She likes Cale for the crime, but Lamb wants to look further. It seems Samantha was employed in the credit department of a casino (yep, Savino’s). None of her co-workers think she was stepping out on Cale; she just seems to have been very conscientious about her job, which involved determining credit lines for high rollers. Poking around the casino, Lamb finds a bloodstain, then gets knocked over the head.
Meanwhile, a whole new lot of suspects has just rolled into town — the Hell’s Angels (there was a motorcycle track near the body). Lamb doesn’t think it was the bikers, either, but he’s happy to lead the police force and citizenry in a “round up,” which is exactly what it sounds like. He tosses all the bikers in jail, after punching out their leader on the sidewalk in front of the Golden Nugget, and locks their LA lawyer in with them when he shows up; I found the vigilante aspect of all this just a little alarming. Is it really wise to hand over this much power to some guy, even if he is Hercule Poirot on horseback?
Not that he really needs to be, in this case. A little more snooping reveals that Samantha had met with a high roller named Stuart Mills, who’s since disappeared, and who was apparently funding his gambling habit by stealing from the bank where he worked. Soon enough, Lamb tracks Mills down in a sleazy motel (can’t have a show set in Vegas with at least one motel scene, can you?). Mills didn’t kill her, but he did reveal to her that he’d cut a secret deal with her boss, a guy named Perrin(sp?), who may have been introduced earlier in the episode, but didn’t make much of an impression on me if he was. And that’s that.
In the middle of all this, there’s a strangely random scene out in the desert at night, with the current sheriff (who was supposedly holed up somewhere with a girlfriend) and O’Connell’s boss. The sheriff is asking to talk to the Feds when Savino shows up; the sheriff runs, but not fast enough.
Lamb and his cowboys, shotguns at the ready, barge into the casino looking for Perrin. Savino: “This is my house!” Lamb: “I am the law here!” Presumably these will be the characters’ talking points from here on out. Perrin’s made a run for it, so Lamb heads to the airport for the episode’s final set piece, staged and shot in full-on John Ford mode. There’s a great shot from beneath Lamb’s car door as he climbs out onto the runway, showing his cowboy boots hit the tarmac with a hundred miles of high desert behind them.
Lamb gets his man, of course, and things go back to normal. Savino’s in the casino kitchen (that rhyme’s starting to get to me), reading the papers and commenting that Perrin hasn’t done him any damage accounting can’t fix; Lamb’s out roping cattle, having offered poor Cale Green a job. But then O’Connell pulls up and tells Lamb he needs to come with her. Once again, he finds himself out in the desert with the mayor, looking at a murder victim – the former sheriff. And — “You’ve got yourself a new job, Sheriff,” intones the mayor.
Final thoughts? The show seems to be depending on the big action sequences to provide a lot of its energy, and this pilot felt a bit more like CSI dressed up in cowboy hats and fedoras than The Sopranos meets The Searchers. And why was every single outfit Carrie-Anne Moss wore green?