Review: Vegas 1×1 (CBS/Sky Atlantic)

A broadcast network finally does period drama well


In the US: Tuesdays, 10/9c, CBS
In the UK: Acquired by Sky Atlantic HD

As you may recall, last year, everyone when 60s crazy. And by everyone, I mean NBC and ABC, with The Playboy Club and Pan Am. The Playboy Club was hampered essentially by budget and a script that tried so hard to fair to everyone and not be exploitative that not much interesting happened when Amber Heard wasn’t around in a scarlet bunny outfit. Certainly nothing interesting happened when Eddie Cibrian was on-screen.

Pan Am, by contast, had no problems with budget or even its cast. Instead, it was hampered by a script that was tedious bollocks. Trans-atlantic flights are more interesting.

The accusation then was the networks were trying to cash in on the popularity of period cable show Mad Men. Maybe a bit, but given Mad Men first aired in 2007 and the networks had already tried series set in the 70s, 80s and 90s, it’s a stretch to say it had to be because of a mad rush to ape Mad Men. But it was at least an attempt to emulate the tone of the quality period dramas of cable TV. Hell, even Starz is trying to do that with Magic City and it is a cable network.

But all those efforts failed, because fundamentally neither NBC nor ABC can make those kinds of shows. Fox? Don’t even think about it. It’s busily trying to be CBS.

Just as we all were starting to despair that no US broadcast network could actually make decent, quality dramas of any kind any more, let alone period dramas, along comes CBS – our last, best hope for quality – and saves the day with Vegas, written by Nicholas Pileggi of GoodFellas fame. Set in 1960s Las Vegas and based on a real story, it has a stellar movie-star cast that includes Dennis Quaid, Carrie-Anne Moss from The Matrix and Michael Chiklis (The Shield, Fantastic Four, No Ordinary Family), features some seamless attention to detail, a suitably complex bit of plotting and characterisation, and – because it’s CBS – a bit of police procedure.

Oh yes, and it’s got Jason O’Mara from Terra Nova. Can’t have everything right, huh?

Here’s a trailer and behind-the-scenes preview.

Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis star in VEGAS, a drama inspired by the true story of former Las Vegas Sheriff Ralph Lamb, a fourth-generation rancher tasked with bringing order to Las Vegas in the 1960s, a gambling and entertainment mecca emerging from the tumbleweeds. Ralph Lamb wants to be left in peace to run his ranch, but Las Vegas is now swelling with outsiders and corruption which are intruding on his simple life. Recalling Lamb’s command as a military police officer during World War II, the Mayor appeals to his sense of duty to look into a murder of a casino worker – and so begins Lamb’s clash with Vincent Savino, a ruthless Chicago gangster who plans to make Vegas his own. Assisting Lamb in keeping law and order are his two deputies: his diplomatic, even-keeled brother, Jack, and his charming but impulsive son, Dixon. Ambitious Assistant District Attorney Katherine O’Connell, who grew up on the ranch next to the Lambs, also lends a hand in preserving justice. In VEGAS, two powerful men – Lamb and Savino – are engaged in a fierce battle for control of the budding oasis, and for both of them, folding is not an option.

Is it any good?
While it’s almost impossible to shift broadcast network TV from any show’s DNA once it’s been touched by it, Vegas is about as good as you’re going to get from a non-HBO, non-Showtime drama.

Dennis Quaid, showing Longmire how to do ‘crusty old cowboy solves crimes’ properly by taking a leaf out of Dennis Weaver’s McCloud’s book, does a pretty decent job as the real-life rancher, former MP and the only honest man in Vegas, Ralph Lamb, hired by the mayor to investigate the death of a politician’s niece. Together with his brother (O’Mara) and son Dixon, and overseen by the assistant DA (Moss), he proceeds to turn the town upside down to find true justice for the girl and her family.

Just at that moment, into town comes a smooth-talking, hard-punching mobster (Chiklis) to take over the running of one of the casinos – as well as a local racketeering operation. Chiklis doesn’t want incorruptible Lamb looking into his affairs, particularly since the previous sheriff was so amenable, and an obvious tension is set up between them.

So on the one hand, this is basically a perfectly normal CBS police procedural, with Quaid investigating the crime of the week, albeit with very little recourse to actual police practice instead of riding a horse and firing a shotgun. He’s a lonely old codger, a widower who likes his ranch, knows right from wrong and is prepared to bend the law a little to ensure the right thing gets done. O’Mara, trying a slightly different American accent for a change, is fine as his sharp-shooting brother, but has had little to do so far (thankfully).

Chiklis is more interesting, running the gamut of emotions from suave and polite to brutal, a smart mobster with a code and who’s willing to kill a policeman if he has to – but only if it comes to that.

So on the other, much more interesting hand, it’s a serial, a two-man battle between a good guy who’s prepared to do what it takes for justice to win and an evil man who’s prepared to play nice so that he can win. That’s what makes Vegas worth watching.

There are some downsides. While there are other characters, almost all well drawn, they don’t have a lot to do. Disappointingly, that includes Carrie-Anne Moss who’s pretty much the only woman in the story who isn’t dead, and who largely runs around, passing Quaid messages. If the show has one big flaw, it’s that Moss is this underused, but I’m hoping she’ll get more to do in future episodes.

As a procedural, there’s not much to this initial story and it largely involves driving around to bits of desert and casinos. If too much focus is placed on the procedural side of things in later episodes, rather than on the tussle of wills between Quaid and Chilklis, this could get very boring very quickly.

But in the main, this was enjoyable, well written, well acted, engaging and entertaining. Quaid’s brand of natural justice will get you cheering for him, the show manages despite its setting to avoid being sleazy and there’s a depth to the writing and the characters that you don’t often get in network shows.

So give Vegas a try for a few weeks to see how it builds on this very promising start. I’m pretty sure we all won’t regret it.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.