CBS's new drama Vegas, based on the real life of 1960s Las Vegas sheriff Ralph Lamb, comes to us from the mind of Nicholas Pileggi. He's the screenwriter behind some of the greatest mob movies of all time: Goodfellas and Casino (and he didn't write Married to the Mob, so that's a plus). But this is CBS, and this is network television, so expecting Vegas to feature slow-motion car bombs, mob men with their faces dusted with cocaine, or fatally mis-executed pen tracheotomies—scenes we all remember from the aforementioned movies—isn't even an option. Instead, we'll get a much tamer version of those things, buttered up for comfort and told from the point-of-view of television's next great over-50 hero.
Vegas's series premiere wasted no time identifying its key players. The episode opened with the man of the hour, a freshly shaved, doppelganger-to-the-Marlboro-Man Sheriff Lamb (Dennis Quaid), going about his business herding cattle like the good old folk do, all to the uppity twangs of a stock Americana tune. Moments later, Chicago mob boss Vincent Savino (the return of Michael Chiklis to a role he's better suited for) emerged from a Spruce Goosey plane (the same damn plane that spooked Lamb's moo cows!), and the audio accompaniment—sinister jazz—revealed that he's a bad guy. Subtlety is not welcome in Las Vegas, and it's not welcome here, either.
Like all-in gamblers, everything is laid out on the table in Vegas, which is ready to show you what it's got. The good guys wear cowboy hats, the bad guys wear fancy suits. This is plain-to-see TV. Vegas is one of the least-edgy new shows of the season, but I mean that in the best way possible. The series is not only set in the '60s, it also seems to have a '60s television mentality; it's a capable show that is so comfortable in its well-worn jeans that it doesn't try to do too much more than the bare minimum.
But the key to Vegas's success, and I'm guessing it will be a hit for CBS, is in that reluctance to overreach. Instead, the show goes through the process of really making sure that what it does do, it does very well. So here we've got a very likeable classic cowboy in Lamb who's fond of dust-ups and the simple way of life, and he's standing in the way of a driven criminal who commands the underground elements in a burgeoning metropolis built on gambling, sex, and booze. It's old versus new, blue collar versus a criminal corporate element, natives versus invaders. There was a chase scene between a rifle-toting Lamb on a horse and a bearded biker on a Harley through the streets of downtown Vegas, for crying out loud. In addition to Quaid's performance, which has more than just a bit of Indiana Jones in it, there's also competent pacing and good-looking location shots and sets, and it all works well. But it doesn't offer anything more, which will leave adventurous television viewers bored.
Lamb is justly the main attraction here and one of the best new characters of the season (because he likes to roll into casinos with big guns), but he does have help. Terra Nova's Jason O'Mara plays Lamb's subservient brother Jack, who wouldn't steal a scene from his sibling even if there was no chance he'd get caught. Taylor Handley plays Lamb's extroverted son Dixon, who brings the most life to the family and joins the very long list of TV characters we first meet as they're crawling out a bedroom window with an angry husband looking to string them up by their nuts and a nether-region-sore housewife clutching her pearls and fondly remembering being treated like a rodeo bull. Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix) is also around as an assistant district attorney and likely possible future love interest for Lamb, but she was largely forgettable in the pilot. Chiklis does what he can with Savino, a business-first villain who knows violence isn't always the answer, but remains a good fallback plan (I expect Savino to develop more in later episodes because the pilot was all about Lamb). However, the man I was most impressed with was the familiar Michael O'Neill as Mayor Ted Bennett, an ally of Lamb's who is wrestling with keeping the criminal element out of Vegas but not totally against the business it brings in. He's a couple inches of mustache away from being the next Sam Elliott.
The decent and well-defined characters are accompanied by outstanding sets and location shots, and if the rest of the episodes continue the work that went into the pilot, Vegas will be a weekly visual treat for owners of gigantic HD screens. Furthering the black-and-white, good-guys-versus-bad-guys theme are the alternating shots of the deserts of Vegas where hard-working men and women wear denim and name cows, and the luxurious, over-the-top classiness of the casinos where the bourgeois and the burnouts hand over cash to the mafia. That's the duality of what Las Vegas is, captured on camera, and it's a perfectly simple monochromatic setting for what's going on here.
Right now it looks like the series will go case-of-the-week, with occasional run-ins between Lamb and Savino—the correct and obvious creative choice—with much of the satisfaction coming from Lamb's ability to use old-
school -ranch police work to pull one over on the monolithic casinos and snappy mobsters running them. And CBS's audience will eat that up. The pilot's case was copied straight from Intro to Old West Procedurals and involved the murder of a young woman (just as A & E's similar Longmire opened with), and [spoiler alert] it was solved with a few interviews and knuckle sandwiches. Next week, it's the murder of a craps dealer, to remind you that this show takes place in Las Vegas.
And now for the big Vegas-pun finish! Vegas doesn't hit the jackpot, but the odds are definitely in your favor for an enjoyable hour that will come out somewhat profitable and won't take your shirt. You're only here for the free cocktails anyway, right?
– There's always the chance that this show will add some complexity, but I don't think it will, and I don't think it needs to. For those who are looking for something similar but a little more substantive on the character side, I'd highly recommend A & E's Longmire, which recently concluded its first season.
– I'm pretty sure you could watch this with your eyes closed and instantly be able to tell who the bad guys are by the sounds of their voices. No drawl? Bad guy! Slight Italian or New York/Chicago accent? Bad guy!
– Sarah Jones (Alcatraz) joined the cast after the pilot, and she'll be playing a mobster's daughter. It's like a redo of her turn in Sons of Anarchy, when she played Ethan Zobelle's daughter.
– Potential supercut: all the times Ralph Lamb puts on or takes off his hat.
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom