Westerns are making a comeback, and the broadcast networks are finally getting in on the game. While CBS churns out a great deal of popular police procedural shows (their bread and butter), they come out now and again with something truly different and great. "The Good Wife" (whose new season starts up this coming Sunday) has been the shining example until, perhaps, now. "Vegas" may take over as CBS's best dramatic offering, coming out of the box with not only a strong pilot but an extraordinary cast.
There's something nice and old-fashioned about "Vegas" that plays upon the best cliches. It doesn't feel stodgy or boilerplate, but it does seem familiar. That's not due to the fact, either, that it's actually based on the real-life story of a rancher Ralph Lamb (played by Dennis Quaid) who was the Las Vegas Sheriff for almost two decades. Quaid's Lamb is not the morally gray protagonist of modern stories — he's the good guy in the cowboy hat using his shotgun to bring down the bad guys. He's also a surly ex-cop with a long-deceased wife and a ranch that he just wants to tend in peace, of course. Lamb is one of the stand-up good guys from the height of Westerns' popularity, which was some time around when this series actually takes place (1960). The setting, theme and characters reminds one of a hodgepodge of "Deadwood," "Boardwalk Empire" and "Mad Men." Not shabby at all. For more on the specifics of the pilot episode and why this one could be worth sticking with (and where Michael Chiklis fits in), hit the jump.
The flip side to our hero is a Chicago gangster, Vincent Savino, played by the exceptional Michael Chiklis ("The Shield"). Savino was introduced here as a pretty straight antagonist, but there are layers to him that will be interesting to watch unfold as the series continues (his gentle treatment of the casino staffer who one of his goons beat up for no reason is one example). He's not a sociopath, he's just a man who wants to make a lot of money by whatever means.
Part of that involves some pretty sticky stuff, including murdering the corrupt Sheriff who is losing his taste for said corruption (which naturally makes way for Lamb to step in and save the day). Savino already (rightfully) sees Lamb as a threat to his back-room business dealings, and the two squaring off (a la saloon owner Al Swearengen and reluctant law man Seth Bullock from "Deadwood") will be great to watch.
The Mayor and the District Attorney's offices are also crucial to this web, and the shining spot there is certainly Carrie-Anne Moss as A.D.A. Katherine O'Connell. Frankly, it's just refreshing to see a main role go to a 45-year-old woman who doesn't just play a mother — she's smart and stunning and has her flirt turned to maximum whenever she is around Lamb (and who can blame her?) Both Quaid and Moss' roles could have been aged down but thank the gods they weren't. It gives the show a gravitas and an instant degree of quality to have such experienced actors running it, which they do adroitly.
Rounding out Lamb's posse are his level-headed brother Jack (Jason O'Mara) and his flippant son Dixon (Taylor Handley), and occasionally it seems a Native American friend Don (Gil Birmingham). Though the time period isn't played up (mercifully — those who watched Pan Am know that the winking nod to audiences about "oh wow look what they didn't know back then! Look how they drank and smoked!" is insulting and lazy writing), there are gentle reminders of it in the clothes and cars and, in a too self-aware shot, a "white's only" bathroom (though whether they actually have any black characters remains to be seen).
The Western theme, however, is all-encompassing. It takes the form of a kind of urban versus rural battle — a horse against a motorcycle, a lone man with a shotgun against a car. Lamb gets his posse to mount up, essentially, against the Hell's Angels, corralling them like cattle. And Lamb is the kind of guy who will punch a man in the face before he can blink for saying something rude to a woman, wagging his finger at him in admonishment. Jimmy Stewart would be proud.
For a pilot, "Vegas" unfolded nicely by pretending to be a kind of police procedural long enough to get viewers interested while it introduced characters and built its world. The crime wasn't just incidental, of course — it's what brings Lamb back to the Sheriff's office, and establishes the rough and tumble nature of a city that's just about to get big on the back of gambling. The series employs some good humor (such as throwing the Hell's Angels lawyer in the cell with his defendants), a few gags (pretty much everything Dixon does / is saved from doing) and some required tropes (Lamb, with his gun over his shoulder, "I am the law here"). In this busy TV season of pilots and returning favorites, make time for "Vegas." It looks like it will be worth it (and meanwhile, I'll be covering it for a few more weeks at least).
Musings and Miscellanea:
— "Send 'em on in - that's French for 'we're done'" - The Mayor
— You just can't make a guy like Lamb up: war hero, talented investigator, 4th generation rancher, chewer of gum (sometimes for investigative purposes).
— Fans of "The O.C." may remember Taylor Handley as Oliver, the kid from rehab who was obsessed with Marissa and ended up waving a gun around about it. Good to see him in this, he's a charming guy!
— Many have tried to make series about Las Vegas in the past, but I think this might be the one that sticks.
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