Las Vegas

If one sequestered a gang of adolescent males long enough without female company and with only a few word processors for distraction, they’d sooner or later produce a script for Las Vegas. The female characters come from an old Victoria’s Secret catalogue; and primary pretty boy Danny McCoy (Josh Duhamel) struggles with narcissism, sensitivity, and an inane voiceover that repeats in 20 words what’s already obvious from the onscreen action.

Ostensibly an insider’s look at the deadly serious, multi-million dollar business of Las Vegas casino surveillance (in this case, at the Montecito Resort and Casino), this primetime soap spends more time on sex and sentimentality. In the psychobabbling series opener, we meet Danny, estranged from his real dad, a white-shirted Vegas construction firm owner, and now surrogate-fathered by his boss at the Montecito, Ed Deline (James Caan). When Danny falls in lust with Deline’s daughter, Delinda (Molly Sims), the shady plot contrivance of her having studied abroad means he doesn’t know she’s Deline’s daughter and she doesn’t tell him because she has rebellion issues. They’re caught in the act (on company time, in a company suite) by Deline, whose subsequent hissy fit fills the next 50 minutes with suspiciously Freudian undertones while Danny looks guilty.

By episode two, Danny’s soft-focus angst expands to include Greg, his old school friend, who didn’t run away to join the Marines like Danny, but instead went to work in Danny’s father’s firm. There Greg proves, in Danny’s words, “a better son to my father than I ever was,” despite a rampant gambling addiction. In a bathetic tour de force, Danny forgets to return Greg’s calls, and Greg turns up dead at the hands of a rapacious loan shark. Cue more guilt. The trouble is that these excursions into Freud by numbers aren’t plot structures but seduction moves, designed to reveal the vulnerability of the tough guy while assuming the audience’s limited intelligence and infinite gullibility.

This supposedly professional crew, who live in a city where working in the casino business is as mundane as suiting up for a day in the corporate cubicle, seems to view its town through the lurid neon spectacles of the Vegas neophyte. The result looks like a cheap attempt to cash in on CSI‘s undoubted Vegas chic, which is achieved precisely because it treats Las Vegas as just another one-industry town. And no one seems to have a clue what to do with Caan, who spends much of the first episode looking discomfited (as well he might, given that his major task is to threaten Danny repeatedly with “The Family,” as if his surveillance business protégé were the next candidate for a shotgun wedding, a concrete overcoat or a play by Sophocles).

It’s a pity the premise for this show didn’t fall into the hands of more capable adults, however, for it contains all the elements that many primetime dramas handle so lucidly: a hidden world of expertise, complete with its own vocabulary and mores; a disjunction between appearance and reality; and an explicit, intellectually stimulating, voyeurism. In the second episode, the show had a chance to exploit the tensions inherent in its characters and location when Ed’s past as an on-the-edge CIA chief came back to haunt him in the person of a blackmailing Senator. The specifics of the storyline were obviously dredged from some Salvation Army store for discarded clichés: a moralistic Senator enjoys a secret life as louche Vegas gambler because Deline has to protect his privacy or be exposed as authorizing a badly botched covert operation. But just why Deline would continue to tolerate the blackmail is a question potentially rich in the kind of moral complexity other shows have explored for weeks or months.

In the early NYPD Blue, for example, the willingness of Detective John Kelly (David Caruso) to tamper with evidence to cover up his girlfriend’s murder of a local crime boss forced viewers to live with fallible protagonists who reacted as human beings, rather than shallow TV characters. In the same way, the ER thread that began with the episode, “Love’s Labor Lost,” confronted viewers with a thoughtful, quietly heroic physician, Mark Green (Anthony Edwards), who not only failed to diagnose pre-eclampsia in a pregnant woman, but whose every attempt to save her simply brought her closer to death. By contrast, in Las Vegas, the writers and producers scramble for a hasty, single-episode resolution to Deline’s dilemma.

This show does excel in one staple of primetime drama, the lighthearted weekly subplot that injects an off-the-wall idiosyncrasy into weightier plot lines. But that’s not really so surprising either. Adolescent humor shines in the gag, the prank and the practical joke. In episode two, the running gag of the casino’s hiring a mentally disturbed actor who actually thinks he is King Arthur to play that role in the casino’s current spectacular, provides some luscious high spots. He hails Deline as Merlin, proves an outrageous hit with the bread-and-butter casino visitors, and casts his sword Excalibur into the wave pool in a fit of dejection, thus halting abruptly the casino’s attraction for the night, the Desert Surfing Championships.

The sight of Danny and the casino’s director of entertainment, Mary Connell (Nikki Cox), laughing in the shallow end of the pool, shoes in hand and trousers rolled up, offered a glimpse of the pleasures Las Vegas might offer if it concentrated exclusively on the daily life of the casino business and left the superficial psyche to Dr. Phil. But it was only a glimpse, and nothing else in the show suggests it will ever hone the emotionally and intellectually cathartic relationships that compel viewers to tune in week after week.

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