The new crime drama Vegas (CBS, Tuesdays, 10 p.m.), about a cowboy cop butting heads with gangsters in early sixties Nevada, isn’t going to win any prizes for artistic daring, but it’s proficient and mildly diverting, and I might check in on it occasionally to get my Dennis Quaid fix.
Quaid plays the show’s hero, Ralph Lamb, who’s loosely based on a real person. Here he’s a rancher, former Army MP, and long-widowed misanthrope who’s spent most of the last couple decades in the desert with his younger brother Jack (Jason O’Mara) and his adult son Dixon (Taylor Handley). Lamb agrees to help track the killer of a young female casino employee if the government will agree to stop flying transport planes over his ranch and scattering his horses. Basically, the guy is Shrek in a Stetson, a grump whose default expression is somewhere between constipated and furious. He’s a Gary Cooper/Harrison Ford character — a tightly wound badass who has almost no sense of humor about himself and is hilarious for precisely that reason. I laughed harder at Vegas — mostly in a good way — than at most of the new fall sitcoms because it understands both Lamb’s character and Quaid’s leathery angry-dad screen presence. Slicksters in suits try to charm Lamb, but he just glowers like a junkyard dog.
Michael Chiklis (The Shield) plays Vincent Savino, a mobster who’s flown in from Chicago to clean up a chaotic, bloody local organization — to put the “organized” back in organized crime. He seems more civilized and sensitive than the guys he bosses around, but appearances are deceiving. Carrie-Anne Moss plays assistant district attorney Katherine O’Connell, who grew up on the ranch next door to the Lambs and has an easy rapport with the hero that’s poised to become a “Will they are won’t they?” O’Mara, last seen on Fox’s Terra Nova, is appealing as the hero’s straight-arrow younger brother, but his acting still lacks oomph; he reminds me a little bit of a young Mel Gibson, but without the sexy volatility, and what’s the point of that?
Despite the Mad Men/Crime Story period trappings, Vegas feels like a much glitzier version of the standard CBS crime procedural. It has an ongoing master narrative with a whiff of Western movie iconography: Nevada in the sixties is the place where the Manifest Destiny myth completes itself. New York, Chicago, and California businesspeople import water and electrical power, casinos and tract homes to desert land once controlled by Native Americans and crusty white loners like Ralph Lamb; culture clash ensues. But the pilot’s central mystery — who murdered a casino employee and dumped her body at a nuclear test site? — is self-contained, tied off neatly in the last few minutes, and replaced by another, related murder mystery, which I can only assume will be solved by the end of episode two. This feels like a drama that’s going to try to split the difference between long-form storytelling and one-offs, emphasis on the latter.
There are some intriguing incidental touches: the “Whites Only” sign on the door of a bathroom in the hotel basement, placed in the background of a shot, without comment; the fact that Lamb is still wearing his wedding ring after twenty-plus years of being widowed, but the show lets us notice that in wide shots, never cutting to a close-up of his hand. Vegas isn’t art and doesn’t knock itself out pretending otherwise. But its no-fuss directness is appealing, and Quaid’s ropy scowl keeps it centered. In an early fight scene, Lamb takes a punch to the face, and his reaction — less pained than irked — reminded me of a line from Blazing Saddles: “If you shoot him, you’ll just make him mad.”