The central recurring image of Vegas is threatening to become a traveling shot of the back of Dennis Quaid’s and Jason O’Mara’s heads, the camera hot on their heels as they stride manfully into a room, hell-bent on ruining somebody’s fun. They’re a fine-looking team, and at 58, Quaid is fit-looking enough to get by with having an actor who’s (just) young enough to be his son playing his brother. But there have moments on the first couple of episodes of Vegas where I’d have gladly seen Quaid trade in some muscle tone for a little more humor and a bit of a spring in his step.
How far back do you have to go with Quaid to remember a time when he was the last actor around anyone would have cast as the guy wrecking everyone’s good time at the casino? When exactly did he stop grinning? Back in the days of The Right Stuff and Dreamscape and The Big Easy, Quaid was one of the most welcome presences in movies; he knew how to be cocky and pleasure-loving and fired up without just seeming like a jerk, and if you don’t think that takes skill and talent, check out Taylor Handley as Quaid’s son. His callow horn-dog character is exactly the kind of part Quaid would have been playing 30 years ago, and despite considerable prodding on the show’s part, encouraging us to find him funny and adorable, he’s just insufferable.
As Jack Lamb, Quaid isn’t insufferable, but the show itself can’t make up its mind how to convey how morally upright and hard-bitten he is without making him a self-righteous pill. At the start of tonight’s episode, he refuses to accept a free coffee-shop breakfast, as if to do so would instantly render him as corrupt as the sheriff he’s replacing, who was in cahoots with the local mobsters. At the end, he takes the fortune in tips that a murdered man who holding onto and uses it to pay off the debt on the man’s girlfriend’s family ranch. He explains that, with the wisdom of a cowboy Solomon, he has concluded it’s okay if the I.R.S. never knows about the unreported income, since they’ll end up making more from the taxes on a working ranch than they would have from the penalties anyway.
This may be meant to indicate the degree to which the old-school sheriff Jack Lamb is capable of being pragmatic and human, but it’s the kind of practical gesture one might have expected from the Lone Ranger, who also would have been aghast at the thought that he’d accept a free cup of coffee from a citizen under his protection. In between, Jack gets to demonstrate his style of keeping the peace by deducing that a man who just entered a jewelry store has gone in to rob it and borrowing a broom, which he uses to thrash the hell out of the crook when he exits. He could just as easily have been standing there with his gun drawn and taken the guy in peaceably, but then the show wouldn’t be able to commence with a little gratuitous ass-kicking, and we’d have been denied a thesis pun. (Check it out—the new sheriff is using a broom to clean up the streets, heh heh.)
As Vincent Savino, the gangster brought in to make the casino run smoothly, Michael Chiklis is no barrel of laughs either, but the poor guy is taking it on the chin from every corner. The feds are trying to get the former casino employee arrested for murder last week to roll over on the big boys in Chicago, the sheriff’s office has been emptied of all the grafters on his payroll, and it goes without saying that Lamb won’t accept his offer of a free cup of coffee, either. (When the offer is extended, Quaid acts as if Chiklis just promised to shit in his hat.) Tonight, the show brings in a new character, a gangster’s daughter played by Sarah Jones in an ice-cream swirl hairdo, who is put in charge of the counting room. (“Dad always wanted a son,” she says, “so he raised me like one.” So her father regards the ability to count as a masculine trait?)
It’s not clear where, if anywhere, this story thread may be going. She quickly establishes herself as a capable addition to the operation, but then she proposes a change to Savino, her tells her no, she goes over his head, and the chance is promptly instituted at the urging of her daddy. Then Savino explains to her his reasons, based on his previous experience, for having rejected the idea when she presented it to him, and she’s all, like, oops. You may be awfully aware that this conflict could have been prevented if he’d included the explanation with his initial rejection, and you may suspect that he didn’t for the same reason the sheriff borrowed that broomstick: The show wanted the conflict, and didn’t much care how it got it or whether it will lead anyplace.
This week’s detachable murder mystery isn’t bad; it doesn’t link up with anything Savino is doing, but it does allow for a killer whose motive—contempt for the coming of the casinos and the death of the cowboy code—makes him a twisted image of Lamb. “Used to be, the best cowboy got the girl,” he says, through gritted teeth. “Now it’s the man who gets the most tips.” Lamb, stepping up to the ever-evolving challenge of defining just where he stands in relation to modern world, agrees that this is both true and a crying shame, but you don’t murder folks over it. (Using someone who pledges allegiance to the same denim values as Lamb as a murder suspect is useful in a number of ways. For one thing, Lamb can share homespun maxims such as “You should touch another man’s woman as often as you touch another man’s hat,” and the suspect won’t just go, “Huh?”) Vegas shows a lot of thought, but unless it starts doing better at fleshing out its ideas and investing them with some passion and wit, it’s going to go down as a blueprint for a pretty good show.