Robert Urich is Money in ‘Vega$’

[1 February 2011]

By Jeff Ames

Ah, the boob tube.

I’ll admit I’m not much a fan of TV. To me it’s little more than endless propaganda intermixed with rudimentary programs that dull the senses. At least when a movie ends the lights turn on, prompting you to exit the theater. Once a TV program wraps up, another takes its place before the credits even have a chance to roll.

Thank God for DVD.

The medium allows you to cut through the BS and never-ending swarms of commercialization so that you can enjoy a program without being swallowed up by the frenzy. At the very least a DVD affords you a chance to catch your breath before heading into the next episode.

On the negative side, with the mind no longer distracted by car and beer ads, it’s easy to spot a programs’ shortcomings.

In the case of Vega$, that silly, short lived, disco-heavy sitcom that rode the waves from 1978-1981 and starred the supremely cool Robert Urich as lone wolf PI Dan Tanna (you can tell by the way he moves his feet that he’s a woman’s man), the DVD format enlivens the camp factor, and spoils the tension. For whatever reason, the show doesn’t quite feel the same when not tucked between low-income lawyer commercials, or bits featuring old-timers’ medications/supplies as it did back when it aired on FX in the earl-‘90s (where I saw and enjoyed many an episode). As a standalone product, far removed from the bygone 70s era, Vega$ feels mawkish; ham-fisted, as though the makers knew it sucked, but decided to ride the train as long as they could.

The show is like CSI, if CSI featured a swinging Dick who lived in the back of the Desert Inn, drove an always-shiny, red, 1957 Ford Thunderbird, and spent his days solving crimes that even a three-year old could decipher. Oh wait, that is just like CSI!

Produced by Aaron Spelling (of Starsky and Hutch fame), and created by Michael Mann (yes, that Michael Mann), Vega$ moves like a watered down Murder, She Wrote, with Tanna solving crimes that (for whatever reason) he always seems to have a connection with. Whether it be through a mutual friend (such as his buddy Two-Leaf), or the hotels in which he struts his stuff so oft, there is always some sort of connection between Tanna and the murders/robberies that drive the episodes. (I always felt that Murder, She Wrote should have ended with Angela Lansbury laying claim to have actually killed all of the victims during the show’s run. It makes sense; she was always in the wrong place at the wrong time!)

A couple of episodes stood out to me, the first being the, um, first episode on the three-disc set, but only because it featured a very young, but still cute-as-a-bunny Melanie Griffith. The actress briefly sashays through the episode, and is killed so quickly she doesn’t even have time to flirt with Tanna, or his “goofy sidekick” Blinzer (Bart Braverman). In fact, many of the guest stars, including Tony Curtis, Dean Martin and even Shelly Winters, appear in similar fashion. They pop on, grab their paycheck do their part and then bolt from view. Most of them don’t even register.

Other episodes that stood out: “Macho Murders” featured the best story and the best random explosion; “The Usurper” has the most inept villain (he tales Tanna in a large, completely unoticable blue van); while “Night of a Thousand Eyes” wins the award for Best Misuse of a Cameo (Wayne Newton pops in and does little more than talk).
Of course the show’s success lives and dies on the plots it hangs its hat on, and Vega$ doesn’t disappoint. Well, not entirely. The episodes typically feature an opening bit that sets the plot in motion, eventually leading to a murder, or event, of some sort that Tanna just happens to spot. From there, Tanna heads to the Bat Cave, er, his apartment, flirts with the lovely Beatrice Travis (Phyllis Davis) and then sets about casually interviewing his contacts, who always seem to provide a helpful lead. There exists exactly one fight scene per episode, not to mention endless driving montages (where Tanna uses his super-cool car phone to call even more contacts, while numerous Vegas patrons linger in the background, making no attempt to hide the fact that they are on TV), and an obligatory chase sequence that always seem to end rather anti-climatically. Oh, and along the way he bumps into his cop-buddy David Nelson (Greg Morris, looking bored). Moving on!

I didn’t hate Vega$, in fact it’s actually enjoyable, in a TV-ish sort of way. There’s humor, bits of action and lots of bikini-clad women (including the sultry Barbi Benton, who pops in for a brief stint in the episode “Design for Death”).

What’s more stunning is the locale. Spelling was wise to film the series entirely on the Vegas strip, where Circus Circus and The Stardust stand tall as the premier casinos of the region. Of course, that part of the town has long been run into the ground, replaced by bigger, more sumptuous hotel/casino designs. But the ‘70s featured Vegas at its most primal, most legendary; before, as DeNiro’s character explains in Martin Scorsese’s Casino, “It turned into Disnyland.”

I need to mention Urich some more. While I fondly remember him from the terrific Spencer for Hire TV-series, his performance here is something of a mino-gem. Like a disco-version of Thomas Magnum, Urich struts his stuff, playing a cool, always-in-control character. I remember those mornings, back when school was out, when I would watch Vega$ and wish I could be like Tanna – full of confidence, grit and surrounded at all times by beautiful women. You never get a sense that he risks his life, but then you also sense that he doesn’t need to. He’s too cool for that.

As for the extras, well, there are none, if you don’t count those silly promo bits that headline each episode (I found them annoying and turned them off once I reached disc two).

The set I watched apparently featured only the first half of season two, which is why the final episode wasn’t played like The Final Episode.

Still, there’s more than enough here to give the set a look, and there’s no commercials distracting you from what the show truly is: a cheesy, go-for-broke detective thriller, one that rides the shoulders of its star – all of the way to the bank.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/136175-vega/