Set in the early 1960s when Las Vegas was just a wild frontier ripe for the picking, the new CBS drama Vegas has a few things going for it. Chief among them is the stellar cast that has been assembled, including big-time movie actor Dennis Quaid making his series television debut and settling comfortably into the role of Ralph Lamb, a rancher who reluctantly agrees to serve as Sheriff by the end of the premiere episode. Based on a real life rancher-turned-lawman, the role seems tailor made for Quaid and allows him to play to his strengths as an actor.
Established as Lamb's rival early on, Vincent Savino is a ruthless and violent gangster who can put on a good act for the public as he tries to get a foothold in the booming casino business. Michael Chiklis brings with him all of the gravitas and credibility he earned on FX's acclaimed police drama The Shield, giving Savino the ability to be menacing or charming depending on the situation. There's also Carrie-Anne Moss, most famous for her breakthrough role in The Matrix and its sequel, as Quaid's obvious love interest and former neighbor, Katherine O'Connell, who is now the assistant district attorney. Another familiar face shows up to play one of Ralph's brothers—Jason O'Mara, the former star of one-season series ABC's Life On Mars and FOX's Terra Nova. They all turn in fine performances here in the opener.
Executive produced by Nicholas Pileggi, the writer of period gangster classics Goodfellas and Casino, the period setting feels faithful to the era and gives you the sense that Las Vegas is on the cusp of becoming the massive tourist destination we know it as today. This is a time period and situation that hasn't been explored on television and there are many interesting ways to tell this story. Of course, since the show is on CBS, it turns into a procedural about ten or fifteen minutes into the episode, and that's where I lost interest.
Other retro series such as Pan Am and The Playboy Club bit the dust last season, and even AMC's critically acclaimed Mad Men is far from a ratings powerhouse. Hedging their bets, the producers have applied a case-of-the-week template to Vegas to appeal to the broadest audience possible. Our first episode sees Ralph Lamb investigating the murder of the governor's daughter with the help of his two younger brothers and then...zzzzzz. Procedurals are definitely not my cup of tea, and this one is no different.
While Vegas offers an outstanding cast and the possibility of conflicted characters operating in shades of grey, the procedural element kills it out of the gate for me. If this show were on HBO and not beholden to a stale and tired formula that is already being used in 75% of other network series, Vegas could be a very special project and shed some insight on an era that hasn't been widely explored on television. As it is, it's a solid show that will probably appeal to CBS' core demographics and fans of Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis. Unfortunately for me, what happened on Vegas will be staying on Vegas. All that glitters is not gold.
FINAL GRADE: C