Vegas, like Mad Men before it, seems designed to be a deliberate escape from the complexities of the present.
Vegas arrives on CBS with a high-profile cast, including Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis, and an even higher-profile production team, including director James Mangold and writer Nicholas Pileggi. Some of this talent is visible in the premiere episode's poetic counterbalancing of empty landscapes and claustrophobic casino back-offices, and actors' convincing performances. The period -- 1960, to be exact -- is invoked by cars and trucks that look as if they really have driven long miles on unmade or dusty roads, and costumes exuding an off-the-rack sameness. When it comes to plotting and scripting, though, Vegas is far less sure-footed.
The series opens like a 1950s Western, with a classic range war recidivus. The Lambs clan just wants to ride the range and run their cattle, as generations of the family have done before them. But everywhere they turn, the boys find troublesome newcomers. Planes bringing gamblers and celebrities swoop low over their land. Roads carve through the desert, and local politicians scent prosperity and kudos in homesteaders of a very different kind, the legal and not-so-legal owners and operators, sidekicks, and enforcers of the nascent Las Vegas strip.
Across this premise, the writers stretch a contemporary cop show, one focused on the antagonism between ranchers and incomers when ruthless local mayor Ted Bennett (a potently soft-spoken Michael O’Neill), whose main interest is the city's bottom line, deputizes patriarch Ralph Lamb (Dennis Quaid) to solve a murder of a young casino employee.
As this investigation is set against the emerging gamblopolis, the premiere episode has too many stories to tell, and much of it oscillates uncertainly between the ridiculous and the chillingly inventive. In the opening scenes, for example, Ralph picks a pointless knockdown fight with the flight controller and his minions at the Vegas airport. Everything the audience needs to know about Ralph's investment in the old town is plain with the first punch, but the sequence goes on and on, dwelling on the toughness of the cowboy, the physically feeble bureaucrat who nonetheless has the arresting power of the future on his side, and the visual incongruity of a horse tied up under jet airliner. Neither can the script stop editorializing, with Jack Lamb (Jason O’Mara) in particular explaining what's already crystal clear at every opportunity, like an unwanted echo of the viewer’s own deductions.
When the show manages to escape the burden of its generic conventions, though, it can be chilling. As a group of players in the new Las Vegas meet in the midday light of the scrub-land desert, the casual murder of one weak link reveals the quotidian banality of death for everyone present. Profit, not humanity, dictates action. Like a primitive airport, a man who knows too much is just one more obstacle to be smoothed away. And in case we're inclined to forget the men here are defined by their ruthless exigency, the flat white light leaves the desert looking as affectless as its inhabitants.
For all his skills at managing the visuals, Mangold is less successful with his actors. While Chiklis pitches his performance skillfully, as always, to the intimacy of the small screen, both Quaid and Carrie-Anne Moss, as Katherine (formerly a rancher, now an ADA), struggle to seem human within its domestic confines. Neither is a particularly expressive actor, and both have succeeded in roles where that is a strength. In a TV drama, though, it’s a liability. Moss is so self-contained she starts to appear as if she were longing to be anywhere but Las Vegas. Quaid may be aiming for stoic and determined, but he more often appears wooden and ever so slightly bewildered. In fact, in the opening fight scene, or when he strides, Winchester in hand, into a casino, Quaid acts as if he can’t quite escape the legacy of Hollywood’s long-running romance with the West: rather than playing Ralph Lamb, he is playing a Hollywood Western second-tier actor playing a rancher-cum-sheriff in 1960 Nevada.
Of course, this is just the premiere. If the actors settle into the constraints of their medium, and the scriptwriters develop storylines where crime fighting and capitalism at its rawest cohere, then the show might evoke this transient moment in America’s history tolerably well. Still, a nagging question remains: why this period now? While the Westerns the show imitates recreated a previous century, they were also intimately concerned with contemporary politics.
On the other hand, Vegas, like Mad Men before it, seems designed to be a deliberate escape from the complexities of the present. CBS is claiming credibility for Vegas through its source in the life of the historical Ralph Lamb. But it's unlike a real life was so schematic, so TV-like, shaped by a token female and the complete elision of anyone who is not Caucasian. These conventions might make Vegas seem nostalgic, but not in a good way.