When I started watching Vegas a couple of months ago, a part of me was disappointed that it didn’t remind me more of Crime Story, Michael Mann’s flashy noir TV serial set in Chicago and Las Vegas in the Kennedy years. It was a reaction that I tried to separate from my evaluation of the show. I remember Mann’s show with a lot of affection, but it was flawed and messy and showed the strain of trying to burst the bounds of conventional series TV while clinging to the safe familiarity of the form. But the important thing is that, to succeed, Vegas has to develop its own identity, and how strong that identity is and how true to it the show manages to be is the only real test of how good it is. I enjoyed tonight’s episode more than almost all the ones that preceded it, and it just so happens that it’s the first episode that’s actually reminded me of Crime Story. That could mean that my judgment on it isn’t all that trustworthy, but it might also be that, as much as we’re meant to prize integrity and originality, borrowing part of someone else’s identity is a lot better than having no identity at all.
In the previous episode, which was the closest the show has come so far to firing on all cylinders, Ralph and Vincent wound up joined at the hip, forced to work together and rely on each other, finally saving each other’s lives. In this one, each of the two regular antagonists has his own story to carry, with no real connection between them; it’s a good sign that the show can make it work either way, and it’s a mark of good sense for the series not to bother pretending that the parallel plotlines have something to do with each other when they don’t. Just for old time’s sake, Ralph and Vincent do share a well-written opening number, kind of like Bugs and Daffy singing “Overture, curtain, lights! This is it, we’ll hit the heights!” before the action begins. Vincent shows up at Ralph’s office with a bottle of scotch, which he tries to present to the sheriff without acknowledging that it’s a thank-you gift for having saved his life. Ralph can’t let this go, and the conversation quickly degenerates into an argument over who saved whose life and who never needed saving from the likes of youse in the first place. They’re interrupted by the secretary, who informs Ralph that a dead body has been found. There’s a brief, awkward silence before Vincent says, “Don’t look at me.”
That’s not the last decent line Michael Chiklis gets to deliver, either. He has the juicier half of the episode, contending with his new boss, Johnny Rizzo, who’s a much more on-site administrator than the late, lamented Angelo. Michael Wiseman, who had too many scenes early in the series where he had to play the same kind of aggravating psychotic prick, is starting to breathe some nuance into the character; he's much funnier now that Rizzo, having made it to the top, can relax a little and stop pushing, and he’s wonderfully convinced of his own reasonableness when he decides that a faithful employee whose sin is having shared valuable information with Mia should be killed, because, hey, why take chances? He also brings in his current girlfriend, a famous singer played by Ivana Millicevic, whom he swaddles in fur and puts to work performing at the casino. Turns out she and Vincent had a thing in Cuba some years back. Alone with Vincent, she pours herself out of her coat like molten lava and says, “He doesn’t realize that the only reason I even let him look at me is so I can use him to get close to you.” Vincent, struggling manfully to maintain his composure, replies, “If you’re not interested, you should give Rizzo his coat back.”
The scenes at the casino include a neat little maneuver involving a money switch in an elevator and some much-needed hints about the exact nature of just how twisted Vincent and Laura’s marriage may be. The murder mystery—a military-industrial complex cover-up story involving radiation poisoning, with echoes of movies like Mulholland Falls—mainly serves to flesh out Ralph’s character a little and improve on his back-story. Ralph gets the chance to talk about his past as a military detective and bond with an Air Force investigator. The scenes of Ralph teasing his new friend about the superior manliness of the Army versus the flyboys smell like old socks, but at least he’s trying to be funny; the show continues its efforts to reshape Ralph’s character to better suit Dennis Quaid’s core talents, instead of forcing him to talk as if he were barking mad and glower as if he were trying to kill everyone he saw with hate rays. At the end, the show springs the news that his wife’s death is the unsolved crime that gnaws at Ralph’s mind and drives him to leave no justice unavenged, so he may be doing some cold-case sleuthing on the side and chasing down a mysterious one-armed man by the time sweeps week comes around again. For the moment, I’m more eager to see where Laura’s stealth campaign against Ivana Millicevic will go. I’d like to say that I am too proud a man to be hoping for a cat fight scene, but I think the world knows me better than that by now.