Revisiting Vegas on the occasion of its season finale—which officially became the series finale earlier today, when CBS finally announced that the show has been canceled—after having tuned the show out during its winter break, the most interesting thing is seeing how much a show like this can move the furniture around without feeling any different. Ralph Lamb, the old-time cowboy sheriff who can’t stand all these big-city mobsters coming into his town with their flashy suits, neon signs, gangland-style executions, and postwar moral ambiguity that muddies the once pristine clarity of the American dream, has a new enemy in his crosshairs: Porter Gainsley (Michael Ironside), a rancher and mine owner who been engaged in a pitched battle with Vincent Savino for control of the Tumbleweed Casino. Having been outmaneuvered, Gainsley just blew the place up, radically upping the ante on taking his ball and bat and going home.
Ralph’s brother Jack and Savino’s count room manager Mia are constantly resuming and breaking off their forbidden love. When they’re not gazing into each other’s eyes, he goes looking for his brother so they can have a good argument, while she either basks in the attentions of Ebver Gjokaj or listens to the world-weary, somewhat jaded advice of her mom, played by Melinda Clarke. (Clarke looks absolutely miserable, and it’s easy to understand why, especially if you’re watching her right after switching over from Nikita on The CW. There, she has to spend half her screen time with Maggie Q pointing a gun in her face, but at least she’s not working with a hair stylist and a cinematographer who seem to be trying to sink her career.) Carrie-Anne Moss’ assistant-D. A. character, who never got to say or do anything worthy of the actress’ time and talent, has been waylaid and lies in a hospital bed in a coma, so the odds of her material getting any better are not great. (Sitting beside her, Ralph moos, “I suppose there’s a lot of things I should’ve told you.” For starters, he should have told her not to do this show.) Meanwhile, it’s no clearer than it ever was which of the kids hanging out on the street corner will grow up to be Dan Tanna.
The central conflict in Vegas was supposed to derive from Ralph’s hatred of the mobbed-up Savino and his determination to arrest him or run him out of town. He seemed to think that if he could just break this guy and his associates, then he could stem the tide of corruption, and Las Vegas could be saved from becoming a desert oasis of hedonistic pleasure and moral turpitude. The fact that we all know how that turned out always made Ralph, who was meant to seem noble, come across as more than a little ridiculous. Since Ralph was never going to get any traction on his primary goal, the show had to give him a different, attainable goal as the season came to a close, so there could be a rousing conclusion. Its solution was to create a homegrown villain who Ralph and Vincent could take down together. Porter Gainsley is a power broker and a killer, but what really defines him as a monster of the highest order is the discovery that he was responsible for the death of Ralph’s wife. For Ralph, getting justice for his late wife trumps everything else, so he packs up the incriminating tapes from his electronic surveillance of Vincent’s office and hands them over to the casino boss, in exchange for his help in killing Gainsley. "All along," Ralph grunts, "I've been thinkin' the problem was these gangsters comin' from Chicago and New York. Well, I was wrong. Our problem's been right here the whole time." That's what's the matter with these morally rigid, black-and-white old-school cowboy hero types. Most people would be able to see that the gangsters coming in from out of state and the local assholes who act like gangsters are both problems, but Ralph is an either/or kind of guy.
“Cowboys and mobsters teaming up!” Gainsley marvels when he hears the news. “I guess I’ve lived long enough to see just about everything.” That high-concept declaration is typical of Vegas’ dialogue—the characters often sound as if they’re reading aloud from the official synopsis put out by the network publicity department, or the notes actors scribble in the margins of their scripts to delineate their motivations—but nothing that follows rises even to that stunted level. The cowboy and the killer put their heads together and decide to drive out to Gainsley’s land and pick him off from a distance—for this master plan, Ralph, who is quite capable of shooting straight all by himself, had to make a deal with the devil? They’re interrupted by Jack’s son, who suddenly pops up, intending to kill his mom’s murderer, only to suffer an attack of conscience when he’s close enough to blow Gainsley’s head off. In the end, Ralph realizes that he can’t set a bad example for his son by playing vigilante and delivers Gainsley to the Feds, over Vincent’s strenuous objections. In the final scene, the two of them trade insults and warnings, but in a genial spirit, like a couple of guys trapped in an old-fashioned TV show who share the frustration, and satisfaction, of knowing that nothing in their world really changes. There will be no more gleeful anticipation of the big bust, no more talk about how the mob shouldn't kill the Ralph, but only because not enough time has passed since they killed the last sheriff. Ahab and Moby have become reconciled to each other's existence and are now frenemies; it'll be like one of those cartoons showing Tom and Jerry yukking it up together in the old folks' home. Hey, remember that time I smeared barbecue sauce on your tail and dipped it in the piranha tank? Good times!
If the creators of Vegas had known that this was their last episode, they might have done a few small things differently, like have Jack and Mia fall into each other’s arms for good, or throw Carrie-Ann Moss a recovery scene. (Not that they ought to be surprised. When CBS moved the show to Friday nights a month ago, it may not have killed the show outright, but it was essentially disconnecting its feeding tube.) But the last scene actually strikes a perfect note for this show to go out on, which is not a compliment. Vegas wasn’t the worst show of its season, It was consistently, top-to-bottom mediocre, especially compared to something like Smash, which has the strange, twisted glamour of an overhyped train wreck. But for a stretch there, there were people rooting for it, myself included, because of the big-name talent involved, and the promise we saw in the set-up. In retrospect, there was no way that a conventional show with this set-up wasn't going to turn into a stalemate, of the "Gee, I don't think Gilligan and his friends are ever going to get off that island!" variety. The mistake some of us made was in not imaging that the talented people working on Vegas just wanted to churn out one more conventional TV show; now we know. It’s the 2012-2013 season’s reminder that TV has advanced past the point where big-name talent in the service of mediocrity impresses anybody.