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'Vegas' Premiere Review: So Is It a Period Drama or a Crime Procedural?

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Sep 26, 2012 | 6:04am EDT

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Vegas

The premiere episode of Vegas showcases its titular city at the dawn of its prosperity. The program is set in the early 1960s, finger on the trigger of the takeoff of Nevada’s lap of luxury. There are signs of what’s to come: Michael Chiklis plays Vincent Savino, a kingpin mobster and casino owner whose businesses (both the legitimate and the “otherwise”) are on the rise. Michael O’Neill, as good-guy Mayor Bennett, promotes the thriving tourist attraction that his city is bound to be. There are a lot of pieces in place — pieces that could independently promise a bright future to Las Vegas. But they’re not exactly working in harmony. The same can be said for the makeup of the show itself.

Vegas seems to shoot for a few different identities in its pilot. Headlining the series is Dennis Quaid, playing the gruff Ralph Lamb, a salt-of-the-earth ranch owner, renegade lawman, war veteran, widower and single father… just about every quality he’d need to have for us to be sure that he’s the hero, and then some. By his side are his more even-keeled younger brother Jack (Jason O’Mara) and his ne’er-do-well twentysomething son Dixon (Taylor Handley), and a herd of cattle who can’t stand the low-flying planes that the nearby airport attracts.

After a violent run-in with the airport proprietors over said issue, Ralph is called in by his old war buddy Mayor Bennett. In exchange for a drop of the assault and battery charges to which Ralph is due, the World War II vet and skilled detective is called upon to solve the murder of the governor’s niece — an employee at Savino’s casino who is found dead in a desert ditch.

Right up until this point, Vegas seemed to promise something — something you couldn’t help likening to Boardwalk Empire. All the factors seemed to scream period drama: crooks running a highly vivid town in a highly vivid decade. And as this, it would have the potential to outshine its HBO peer on premise alone. Las Vegas trumps Atlantic City; the ‘60s are far more a thrill than the ‘20s. All in all, it wouldn’t be such a long shot to think that Vegas might even live up to Boardwalk, all things considered. But CBS seems to stockpiles one too many concepts into its new program.

Intermittent scenes in the pilot are devoted to building this world, as would be the case in a period drama. We see Savino running things from the shadows, the runaway sheriff and begrudging district attorney revealing their stakes in some underhanded business, the budding of the magical town. But the vast majority of Vegas doesn’t remind one of Boardwalk Empire at all. It’s closer to Law & Order.

Such a large pulp of the episode is spent following the Lamb boys investigate and solve this crime of the murdered young woman. One-off suspects are interviewed, motives are collected, et al — you know the drill. The show seems bent on balancing its period drama with a bona fide crime procedural. And what’s more, it looks like it’s giving the bulk of its attention to the latter motif. So why even bother investing its setting in someplace and time so distinct as Vegas in the ‘60s?

You wouldn’t even be able to tell you were in the ‘60s (or in Vegas, for that matter), if you happened into the episode after the introduction of the setting. Minus the lack of cell phones, there’s nothing to separate the M.O. of Vegas’ Quaid scenes from the investigations of Justified (even the hats are the same).

The far more interesting and potentially innovative elements are sidelined, as they have less to do with the show’s leading man… at least for now. Chiklis and Quaid enjoy a few increasingly hostile encounters, foreshadowing a rivalry that’s bound to carry the pair through some pretty high-stakes crime.

This kept in mind, we might see Vegas break free from the procedure that formed the pilot and launch its stars into more plot-driving and less self-contained crime stories. And what’s more, hopefully we’ll learn a bit more about these characters, beyond mere expository information about the death of Ralph Lamb’s wife and about his skills as a crime solver. But if we’re meant to understand this episode’s formula — the run-of-the-mill Stabler and Benson routine — as the series’ M.O., then it might be fair to call Vegas’ attention misplaced.

[Photo Credit: CBS]

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