Vegas – Pilot
While Gangster’s in Vegas isn’t exactly virgin territory for the visual mediums – Scorsese’s great stylistic sequel to Goodfella’s Casino shares the shows concept and coincidentally also its writer, Nicholas Pileggi – it is still pretty fresh track for a show to stake its claim on, so the fact that it is also set in the early sixties sweetens the deal, that though isn’t the end of the synopsis. No, see the Vegas of that era was actually closer to the Wild West than it is the Wet ‘n Wild ride that it is today; it was the last frontier of civilization, a community with few rules and only one man to uphold them, a sheriff no less.
It is a classically compelling concept with a plethora of potential, but of course the execution of a show is just as important as its idea. So how did Vegas do on this front? It cast two classy, charismatic actors as the opposing sides of the coin (Quaid and Chiklis), put a director behind the camera that has proven himself capable of competently handling both clashing genre’s like James Mangold and had the foundation for a truly amazing show. There was only one last name to choose, that of the network and given the plethora of serious cable companies that would have fit this show perfectly the creatives behind Vegas went to… CBS?
CSI, CSI: Miami, CSI: New York, NCIS and NCIS: LA, these are but a few of the obviously imaginative and outside the box shows that have made CBS the stunning success that it is today (the former sarcasm, the latter sad fact) and besides the letters S, I and C what they all have in common is that they are crime procedurals; they are storytelling capsules, ready made to swallow. None of the images that flashed through my mind when I first heard the concept of Vegas (coincidentally where the first CSI is also shot. I smell a crossover) had to do with what minor crimes Quaid’s sheriff would be solving; if there were to be murder’s then they would be messages from one adversary to another, Chiklis’ cruel communications, and not a driving structural element.
The case itself is interesting though, not on its own terms but in the way that it works to tie the two leads together and the way that they react to the procedural tropes. A girl is murdered, her body dumped in the center of Nevada’s nuclear testing site and since she was rich and white it causes a political crisis, so Quaid’s character – real life figure Lamb – is made Sheriff and tasked with solving what occurred. The story swings from one red-herring to the next with great style, these classic cliche scenes all made so much more compelling by the Cowboy garb and mannerisms of the men enacting them: criminals are rounded up like cattle, shotguns are held aloft in near every scene and the law is what Lamb says it is: it’s Justified if Raylon were the norm and not an outlier and we are behind him all the way.
On the other hand Chiklis’ cool and collected mob boss wasn’t given as solid an introduction here and has little to do with the case of the week; he is the villain and so we aren’t given much of his perspective, he simply careens in and out of scenes wherever his presence can be contrived (and I say this as a compliment given just how chilling his turn is). I think it would have been smart to tie him into the story a little more or to give him one of his own, but then I am thinking like someone who is used to cable shows where the antagonists get that kind of time and not the classic model of showing the hero all the time, every-time.
The world that they’ve created is then a very compelling one, the way that both sides of the story work in and of themselves but jar when combined is crafty and makes the climaxes all the more powerful. I will be happy to watch whatever stories the writers want to set here for a while, but I do still wish that they had managed to make the individual pieces a little more stunning and the scripts a little less safe.
The case will be the scapegoat for many, but in fact a lot of the show is very cliche: Chiklis’ introduction to the casino is classic Pileggi material, something that Pesci has surely pulled out before and the Cowboy stuff – showing up in handcuffs, standing up for the woman , riding the horse, etc. – really speaks for itself. These too are interesting prisms to view the procedural through but their novelty will wear off quickly, the real power in seeing how the two clash and combine and how our current world was conceived as a result.
Everyone involved in the project is more than capable of pulling their part of this project off but whether or not they will really resides in the hands of CBS, as Dan Fienberg pointed out. If they have enough faith in their audience to make the majority of the show about the deepening and entwining of these two narratives – putting the primary focus on scenes like the spotting of the blood – then it could well be a great success but if they don’t, or if the audience is too skittish to allow them too then it will quickly become a shiny but soulless crime procedural, sucking the life out of its stars over several seasons as so many of their other shows have. In other words Vegas is a gamble, it could come down on either side, but I think it’s well worth making the bet.