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Vegas: “Vegas”

Vegas debuts tonight on CBS at 10 p.m. Eastern.

Todd VanDerWerff: Two of the best drama pilots of the fall are CBS’ Vegas and ABC’s Nashville. Despite the fact that both have great American cities as their titles, the two have quite a bit more in common beyond that. They’re both about cities in transition—a cow town becoming a tourist mecca on the former, and a sleepy city becoming an icon of the New South on the latter. They’re both chockfull of stars you’ve liked in other roles. They both boast fascinating filmmaking choices, to the point where the direction is almost more interesting to consider than the writing or acting. They both push the limits of the network drama a little bit without seriously doing so, though they both suggest ways in which they would push further in the future. And they both aim to encapsulate the whole of a city—from the most powerful to the least—as though both CBS and ABC saw acclaimed cable dramas and said, “Get me one of those, but don’t make it so, y’know, ambitious.” For both series are filtered through their respective networks’ genre of choice. Nashville is a soap, and Vegas is a crime procedural.

That may sound a touch disappointing when it comes to Vegas, but the pilot is still worth watching. At first, the idea of a cop drama set in early ’60s Las Vegas, Nevada, seems to promise the third season of Crime Story viewers never got. While there are hints of that in what’s on screen—particularly whenever the characters aren’t trying to solve the case of the week—the pilot feels fussed over and attended to in a way that suggests CBS looked at the quick failure of last year’s Mad Men clones, The Playboy Club and Pan Am, and realized that if it was going to do a period piece, it had better make sure it fit within the house style. The series’ ultimate aim is to capture the sweep of the life of one remarkable man, former Las Vegas sheriff Ralph Lamb (Dennis Quaid), whose life story is colorful enough to seem like folklore, but CBS doesn’t seem interested in the fictionalized biography as drama series, not unless it can toss a dead body in there on a weekly basis.

There’s plenty of reason to hope. For instance, CBS threw what seemed to be a standard, well-executed procedural in this time slot in the fall of 2009, and it rapidly grew into arguably the best drama on network television. That show was The Good Wife, and while it started in a standard CBS place, it quickly evolved into something more compelling and complicated, a ’90s throwback drama by way of the cable dramas of the last decade. The producers of Vegas, who include Goodfellas writer Nicholas Pileggi and longtime TV writer Greg Walker, insist they’ve been given latitude by CBS to expand the world of the show beyond the case of the week, following the model of that earlier show, and the very last moment of the pilot, at least, suggests they have a story here beyond Lamb cleaning up the streets of the city. Plus, there’s no reason to cast Michael Chiklis as a mob boss if all he’s going to do is sit around and glower.

If that sounds like the best reason to watch the pilot is to hope it develops into something else, well, that might be the best reason to watch the pilot. It’s not as good as the Good Wife pilot was, and some of the beats in the murder investigation feel just a little rote. As the episode begins, Lamb tells an underling that police investigations are easy. They’re just talking to some people and asking them questions until you start to get information. While that seems like a good way for the show to get out from under the C.S.I. model, where the clues are found via vague, science-y methods, it doesn’t bear out in a manner where Lamb is presented with an array of suspects. Instead, the investigation moves from point A to point B in standard fashion, with conversation mostly just taking the place of vague science. This has the effect of slowing everything down, and there will be plenty of viewers who simply can’t get on the show’s wavelength.

If you’re able to, however, there’s plenty of good in the pilot as well. For starters, director James Mangold has turned in one of the best looking pilots ever. He uses the landscapes around Las Vegas and the neon of the city itself to great effect, and he shoots the body found in the desert that kicks the plot off in such a way as to suggest it’s the city’s seedy underbelly come to life. Once viewers get used to the slower pace (which shouldn’t be difficult for those with experience with cable dramas), some of the scenes—like two men looking up at the power lines running into the city and musing about how somebody somewhere is thinking big about its future—take on a kind of terse poetry. There’s not as much nuance here as there would be in a cable drama, but there’s certainly room around the edges to suggest where nuance will fill in with time. Plus, since it’s so fun to look at, there’s always something to engage viewers’ brains.

Plus, Lamb’s just a fun character to hang out with. Pileggi fell in love with the guy while researching a movie script, but soon found that trying to write a standard biopic of the sheriff didn’t leave enough space for his many exploits. As played by Quaid, Lamb is a blunt instrument, using his fists when his questions don’t get him the information he wants, and he scrunches his face up into a permanently sour frown, the face of a man who’s uncertain about all of the modernity that threatens to ensnare him and his city. It seems unlikely Lamb actually rode down a motorcyclist on a horse, shotgun cocked at his side, but in Pileggi and Quaid’s hands, it seems like a moment where it’s best just to print the legend.

The rest of the cast is similarly good. Chiklis doesn’t get anything to do as mob boss Vincent Savino, but the way that all roads lead to him in every investigation suggests that Quaid and Chiklis will be butting heads on a regular basis in just a few weeks’ time. Carrie-Anne Moss is also solid as an assistant DA who assists Lamb in his investigations, even if she sometimes feels like a token female tossed into the middle of a guy-heavy series so there will be a feminine presence around the edges. If there’s a weak link, it’s Jason O’Mara as Ralph’s brother, Jack Lamb, but there’s so little room to develop his character that it might be best to give the show a few weeks in that regard.

The best thing about the show, though, is the way that it tries to depict the whole of the city in its title and show just how much things have changed since the decade the series is set in. In Quaid’s hands, Lamb becomes a man who’s seeing his small town turning inexorably into a big city, and he’s not so happy about that. Lamb’s methods—just talk to some people until something pops up—betray the small-town man he was, but the code he lives by is confronted by the way the world is changing around him. Vegas will succeed if it can depict the cost of that progress and the man determined to make sure it doesn’t come at too great a cost. And even if it doesn’t, at least it will be fun to look at.

Phil Dyess-Nugent: I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen so many reviewers hailing a new network series for its potential. I’m about to do the same thing, but I do worry that this might backfire in a couple of ways. People who tune in to the first episode of Vegas with too-high expectations might be disappointed enough to never come back, and people who aren’t interested in waiting to see if a show turns into something might not show up at all. I don’t see it turning into one of those shows that lures people who normally don’t watch TV, and it’s probably lucky to be part of one of the least interesting slates of new shows in many a moon. But the potential is there.

How much that potential gets developed will likely come down to how well the show can sustain the period atmosphere, and how good a job it does of playing with the incongruities of this setting, which automatically merges the details of the Western with the gangster epic. There’s an emblematic moment in the pilot when Quaid and his two-man family posse, guns at the ready, march into the casino and engage in tough talk with Chiklis; it’s like seeing Longmire invading the Bada Bing. Both Quaid and Chiklis can stand in for the likes of Gary Cooper and Edward G. Robinson without fear of embarrassing themselves, and they’re surrounded by actors (such as James Russo as Chiklis’ right-hand man, and Jason O’Mara, who looks as if he was born in a Ralph Lauren spread) who perfectly fit the genre requirements of their roles. In the pilot, Carrie-Ann Moss as the A.D.A. and other actors in smaller roles—such as Michael O’Neill as the mayor and Richard Edson as a shifty, observant barber who’s got his hands in God knows what—help to create the sense of a community that combines locals who’ve never dreamed of living anyplace else and strays who’ve drifted in from all over, looking for a place to make a buck.

In Crime Story, everything that happened was rooted in the pitched feud between one cop and one crook, which was meant to be crazy and obsessive and ended in a scenario of mutually assured destruction. Vegas doesn’t seem to be headed that way. (Craziness is always at a premium on CBS.) Buried deep inside the pilot is the suggestion that, while the sheriff and the casino boss may be on opposite sides of the law, their relationship is symbiotic: In their own ways, they both see it as their job to maintain order. One hour in, the show’s balance is tilted more in Quaid’s favor; Chiklis doesn’t have as much to do, maybe because the show still hasn’t made up its own mind what he’s capable of doing. But if Vegas can draw upon the real history of the city in assembling a world around these two guys trying to find a way to live and work with each other, it may turn into something really special.

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