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VEGAS Odds: Better Than Most
“Even the coppers aren’t afraid to bury people out in the desert here.”–Sam “Ace” Rothstein
After wading through the slog of Mob Doctor last week, I am quite happy to report that Vegas, the new crime-drama on CBS starring Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis, delivers all that it promises, if not tons more. I spent my Sunday digging through my DVR and watching the first three episodes of Vegas, and I’m comfortable laying odds that the show will be picked up for at least one more season. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be completely blown away if the show fails to find a big enough audience to satisfy a prime-time network slot. But even then, this would likely be a failure of the system and not the show itself.
New shooter coming out:
Back a couple months ago, our own Josh Converse gave a succinct run-down of exactly why Vegas was going to suck, and though I was probably more willing to give it a chance than my dear friend was, I didn’t really have any counter-arguments to what he was saying, and I still don’t in some cases. Michael Chiklis really isn’t a very good actor. I never got super into The Shield, and though I plan on giving it a serious watch one of these days, that’s mostly because of Walton Goggins and Forest Whitaker. Network TV is still the vast wasteland it’s always been, and even though Vegas is easily the best thing I’ve seen on the networks lately, I’ve got the wide-open field of basic cable in which to piss away more of my precious time on this earth. Even if it’s just re-runs of Seinfeld, basic cable has so much more to offer the discriminating television viewer these days.
So let’s begin here, then. First of all, the Chiklis situation. For one thing, he’s not terrible. Not long into the pilot, I realized he wasn’t very good at all, though. I figure, hey, give him a chance, maybe he’ll pull it out. And lo and behold, by the end credits of episode 3, he’d won me over. Chiklis plays Vincent Savino, a casino manager who’d been working for the mob in Havana until Uncle Fidel and his boys lit their fuse. So now they send him down to the Savoy in Las Vegas, NV, with orders to whip the joint into shape. At first, you see his little hat and his big face and you figure, here we go again with the mobbed-up tough guy. This was likely calculated to get the chumps rolling in at first, a very Vegas-y move: give us an easy crime-fiction stereotype so we know we’re getting the same old slop, you’re not trying to sneak some character development past us. But then that’s just what happens. Savino is probably not the smartest guy in the cosa nostra, but he works hard and he knows what he’s doing. Over the next couple of episodes, we get the clear picture that he’s really more of a middle manager than he is anything. So unlike Tony Soprano or any other major TV mob figures we’ve seen over the last few years, we get a real sense of Savino’s blue-collar roots. Chiklis definitely deserves the lion’s share for credit in this, even though he still wouldn’t have been my first choice.
Then you’ve got the very real notion that network TV is about as balls-less as a puppy fresh from its neutering. Standards and practices, even being what they aren’t these days (hell, I could remember when you couldn’t say “ass” on TV, day or night), are still pretty stringent. I truly feel that within my lifetime, all this bullshit about the seven words you can’t say on television will be an amusing footnote in TV history. But we’re still a ways off. Right now, the best and most effective way around this public mindset is just being a good writer.
Nicholas Pileggi is that writer. Co-creator and executive producer of Vegas, the former newspaper reporter wrote the books which he would eventually adopt into the screenplays of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas and Casino, two of the finest organized crime films ever made. He’s done a couple other projects since that haven’t quite succeeded, but Pileggi can still bank plenty off those two films. Again, you compare this show with the piss-poor Mob Doctor and you can see what a difference a real writer makes. Although profanity is markedly missing from Vegas, rather than try to address the issue or substitute cutesy faux swears, the show just makes sure the remainder of its dialogue remains true to the characters and to the setting.
The writing on Vegas impressed me quite a bit in its very first scene. Dennis Quaid as rancher Ralph Lamb is out on the lone prairie with his cattle, when an airplane landing at nearby McCarran Field spooks his beeves. Immediately, we’re set up with the overarching theme of the new pushing out the old in Las Vegas. The plane is, of course, bringing in Savino, and naturally his ways and Lamb’s are going to come to loggerheads. This sort of touch seems like such little effort, yet that kind of attention to detail is so desperately missed on network TV that people like me who are starved for intelligent entertainment will flock to it like a desert oasis.
Like I was touching on before, the characters are more in-depth than it would seem on first blush. Sheriff Ralph Lamb would probably not be on the airwaves today if it weren’t for Raylan Givens and Justified. But not unlike Walt Longmire on the other Justified-y show of the last year, A&E’s Longmire, Lamb is more than just a rough-and-tumble cowboy archetype. He’s not as tough a Vegas sheriff as the one Sam Rothstein ran up against in Casino, but he also is not afraid to get his hands dirty. Unlike similar characters, Lamb isn’t holding onto a way of life out of pure orneriness; a veteran of WWII, he’s seen what can happen when progress marches forth and mows down everything in its path. He must realize there is nothing he can do to stem the tide of history, but when it comes to men like Savino and his employers, Lamb is not about to just sit back and allow them to exploit this opportunity to build Xanadu in the desert. Perhaps it’s too soon to say that Lamb is not just another Givens knock-off, but like Josh mentioned in his piece, it really feels more like the other side of the story in Casino: the man attempting to keep his own corner of the world safe from outside forces. Certainly a story worth telling.
Yes, being the best network show on the air isn’t saying much when I can watch re-runs of The Wire on HBO OnDemand. But Vegas has definitely whetted my appetite for more of what Pileggi and co. are going to be putting down. I’m not going to bet my bottom dollar that the show won’t crap out, but I will absolutely pick up the dice for another throw.