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There’s a lot to recommend in CBS’ new drama Vegas, but perhaps the best thing is that nothing has looked like such a sure-thing lock on television in years. It would be stunning if Vegas — despite the overused and bland name — doesn’t become yet another CBS drama hit.
Vegas is based on the real-life story of Sheriff Ralph Lamb, a fourth-generation cattle rancher in Las Vegas who eventually gets pulled in to becoming the “law” just as Vegas is going from a sleepy cow town in 1960 to the over-the-top glitz bomb it is today. CBS has managed to create a period piece without relying solely on that factor as the cool conceit. But it’s a nice and essential element to the stories that will unfold — how the desert’s former lifestyle was about to be overrun by the mob, celebrities, opportunists of all stripes and plenty of people who felt outside the law were there.
Dennis Quaid — looking poised for a next step in his career as the star of a successful weekly series — plays Lamb. His small-screen introduction is memorable. As he’s out rounding up his cattle, a plane descends toward a Las Vegas runway, swooping low over his property and scattering his cattle. Lamb jumps on his horse and heads to the airport at full speed.
Getting off the plane is Chicago mobster Vincent Savino (The Shield’s Michael Chiklis), who seems to get a kick out of Lamb confronting the head of air traffic control (clearly in the pocket of those trying to stimulate casino growth). A fistfight breaks out, and Quaid, his face tanned and worn, his cowboy hat sitting on sweaty head and furious brow, looks almost iconic as he’s beating the crap out of people.
The mayor of Las Vegas, who remembered Lamb from the military police when they were both enlisted, calls on him again to help solve the murder of a casino worker and, one would assume, battle the rampant corruption infecting the city.
That’s the clash that really sells Vegas. It’s a time of change — which we all know now can’t be stopped. And Lamb isn’t just from a different time but a different culture. The likes of Savino don’t scare him, and he’s up to the task of cleaning up Vegas, even though he doesn’t quite know yet how dirty it is.
Vegas has a superb cast, with Jason O’Mara (Terra Nova, Life on Mars, Band of Brothers) as Lamb’s brother and Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix, Memento) as the assistant district attorney (who grew up as next-door neighbor to the Lambs). Taylor Handley plays Lamb’s unpredictable son. The series is executive produced by Greg Walker (Without a Trace) and features Nicholas Pileggi as a writer.
The trick to whether Vegas ultimately can reach its potential (which might not happen even if it’s a runaway hit) is getting the audience to identify with Lamb to the extent that they see the transformation of Las Vegas through his eyes. That means the ongoing cat-and-mouse game with Savino must be real and have patience. If it devolves into Lamb busting up bikers each week or a killing-of-the-week at various casinos, then it will fall short on ambition.
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