Dennis Quaid made his television series debut last Tuesday night (yeah I know, I’m a week late) in a role perfectly suited for him. He plays Ralph Lamb, 1960’s Las Vegas rancher who’s accepts the job of temporary sheriff as a favor to the city mayor (and his old CO in the military). In the role, Quaid is stoic and sparingly uses that famous smile of his to get what he wants. With his handsome mug sun baked and full of creases, Quaid does a great job of making you watch him, rather than just listening to the well written dialogue he was given to speak. This isn’t the cocky, free spirited guy we knew from the 80’s; this is a veteran actor using all that he’s learned throughout the years to make what could have been just another genre role and turning it into something worth tuning into. Being on his ‘A’ game also elevates those around him, as TV vets Michael Chiklis (No Ordinary Family) and Jason O’Mara (Life on Mars) both give compelling performances.
Vegas isn’t all about Lamb, though, it’s also about Chiklis’s gangster, Vincent Savino, who’s come to sin city, still in its infancy, to get the house in order at the mob run Savoy casino. The place has been bleeding money and Savino is there to take over and run things for the bosses back east. Savino is complex, and Chiklis does a nice job of showing the reasonable and violent sides of the man’s character. When a casino employee is being roughed up for no good reason, Savino cracks down on his own men, apologizes to the employee and hands him a stack of cash to show his appreciation. More Tony Soprano than Tommy DeVito, Savino isn’t entirely a bad guy, something I hope the producers explore further as the series progresses.
As this was a pilot, the writers had to go out of their way to introduce the principal players in this period drama. On Quaid’s side, there are his brother Jack (O’Mara), and his free spirited son, Dixon (Taylor Handley). For the city, we meet the mayor (Michael O’Neill), the dirty district attorney (Michael Reilly Burke), and the assistant district attorney (Carrie Anne-Moss). For the mob, we meet Chiklis’ right hand man, Red (James Russo). With so many characters, Vegas could have fallen into the same trap so many ensemble shows do: trying to explain the back story for every character in the show. Instead, they wisely chose to focus on Lamb and Savino, while offering just enough information on the others to give us a good idea of who the characters are and what they stand for. Moss, in particular, only had a handful of scenes in which she was the primary focus. Yet her stature as an actress and her strong presence as a female in a powerful position during the early 60’s indicates that she’ll be a very important character throughout the show.
What I loved most about the pilot was the pacing and the wise choice not to have Lamb and Savino’s lives intersect too much as the sheriff investigated the murder of an employee of the Savoy (who also happened to be the Governor’s daughter). The two men meet, but in an organic. The parallel stories that unfolded gave me hope that Vegas won’t be standard murder-of-the-week procedural, but instead a real drama that follows the lives of these two powerful men. I get the feeling that they’ll have to rely on each other at some point and eventually learn that despite their sides of the law, they’re actually very similar men.
Vegas has a wealth of material it can deal with should it get a full season pickup. Besides the themes of law and order at the forefront of the show, I’m most interested in how this series handles the theme of progress. Lamb is a man from a different era, a true cowboy, who lives on the outskirts of a city about to explode. O’Connell is a woman who will have to constantly prove herself, especially when called upon to take down her superior (because you know that one’s coming) and Savino is an old school gangster who believes in loyalty and honor among thieves. At some point he’ll have to deal with a newer, greedier and more violent time of criminal element.
Lucky for us, Nicholas Pillegi, the author of Wiseguy and Casino (and co-screenwriter of the Martin Scorsese films based on those books) knows a thing or two about the mob and dealing with change. Together with Greg Walker, Vegas could turn out to be one of the most satisfying shows of the new season. The ratings for the premiere were excellent, meaning viewers were interested in the mash up of genres. I believe Vegas has legs and will make it through this season and on to next year.