dr. vegas

As a tough guy with a heart of gold, Joe Pantoliano is about as convincing as a rattlesnake would be as a children’s pet. And someone should tell Rob Lowe that he needs an ensemble to back up his limited talents. And Tom Sizemore? He’s a physical player whose retro male grace vanishes on the small screen. CBS has thrown the three of them into a show about a casino doctor in Las Vegas. And as if this orgy of miscasting were not enough, the network’s latest attempt to win the 10pm Friday slot is burdened by a shaky premise (is it a comedy? is it a drama?) and some of the limpest lines penned this side of Coldplay’s lyrics.

dr. vegas follows the daily life of Dr. Billy Grant (Robe Lowe), a one-time emergency room doctor, husband, and father who is now in-house doctor for an old-time Vegas casino, long-distance dad, and poker junkie. His best friend is now his boss, casino manager, and sugar-hearted hard case, Tommy Danko (Joe Pantoliano). And as Grant clashes with Danko over whether the Hippocratic Oath or the profit motive should run the casino, he frequently finds himself the subject of the steely surveillance (and sometimes the fists) of Danko’s loyal watchdog, pit boss, and enforcer, Vic (Tom Sizemore).

The first two episodes have established the pattern: each week Grant faces a major moral medical dilemma that forces him to face down Danko and thwart his plans to rake in revenue. He also tackles incidental emergencies (attempted suicide, a straight from Pulp Fiction, drug-induced cardiac arrest, typical on-the-job injuries, like a nail to the heart), showcasing his medical talents, his empathy and his willingness to bend the rules for the greater good of his patients.

All this suggests that CBS built the show as a cynical pic ‘n’ mix medley of what’s currently moderately successful on tv: Las Vegas as location (CSI and the eponymous NBC series), doctors (the long-running ER), surreal comedy (Scrubs), and so on. The result is a show as unctuous as ER at its worst without ever embarking on the wholehearted anarchic lunacy (and snappy writing) that actually might make such overwrought pretensions funny. In the scene where Grant grabs his crash cart to resuscitate an overdosed daddy’s girl, he discovers she’s wearing a nipple ring, and orders Danko to remove it. This could have been funny in the hands of, say, Scrubs writer Angela Nissel. Instead, the show veers from comedy to straight drama and back again. Viewers’ only consolation lies in the potential usefulness of the information about the conflicts between body jewelry and defibrillators. A very small consolation.

Lacking internal logic, the show posits Danko as a steely casino boss who doesn’t do what you’d think, like fire Grant by the end of episode two, or be fired by his bosses for losing really big money really quickly. If Grant were as moral wobbly as acerbic nurse Alice (Amy Adams) insinuates, he would do anything Danko wanted, and take the money and run to the nearest poker game to lose it all over again. And if Moore were an impartial enforcer, he would have bashed the heads of this inept duo together and walked out of the door in search of a less schizophrenic gig. Watching is unintentionally surreal, and somewhat painful, as if the viewer were trapped in the casino with the characters, and destined to relive repeatedly every clich√© they trot out.

Even the most imaginative cast would have trouble making this farrago probable or entertaining. Casting both Pantoliano and Lowe suggests a foolish triumph of hope (or desperation) over experience. Both bombed spectacularly in series last season (Lyons Den and The Handler), showing then as now their willingness to accept roles that expose their weaknesses as actors rather than their strengths.

Pantoliano has delighted audiences as ruthless, manipulative bad guys, men such as the sleazy bail bondsman in Midnight Run, the unscrupulous Cypher in The Matrix, manic cop in Memento, and the Emmy-award winning Ralph Cifaretto in The Sopranos. Pantoliano’s physical energy and controlled relish for a good line transformed these characters, for whom conscience and pity seemed merely easily ignored itches, into men simultaneously repulsive and sympathetic. But with the more merciful Danko, just as with Joe Renato, Pantoliano looks lost: his physical swagger is diminished and his delivery either too rushed or too casual.

On the other hand, Lowe simply tries too hard. As the protagonist of too many scenes, he resorts to the same range of sensitively pained expressions that caused one British critic to claim of Brideshead Revisited-era Jeremy Irons that he always looked as if he were battling a bad attack of indigestion. While it’s possible to admire Pantoliano’s desire to escape typecasting and capitalize on his Emmy success with a solo vehicle, and sympathize with Lowe’s rather desperate desire to achieve the stardom his early eighties hype promised him, neither emotion can justify CBS’ inflicting on audiences sub-standard performances in desperate search of a plot.

Not that dramatic quality actually guarantees tv success. (NBC renewed the vulgar and juvenile Las Vegas in the same season that it canned the increasingly gripping Boomtown.) After CBS’ recent successes with CSIs and Without a Trace, shows that combine more adult, less family-oriented themes with a distinctive visual identity and mannered performances, dr. vegas looks backwards: a little post-watershed titillation but resolutely wholesome in its wayward characters who’ll never, ever do anything really wrong.