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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2012-2013 season, now in its seventh year! Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season (or one that didn't make the cut) and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot. Keep in mind that a lot can change from what's being screened right now - recasting, reshooting, etc. - but we still want to give you a heads up on what you should (and shouldn't) keep on your radar in the coming months. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!
[IMPORTANT NOTE: The following is based on the original sales presentation which was screened to us privately or supplied by a third party NOT an informational, not-for-review screener provided by the network in question.]
(written by Greg Walker & Nicholas Pileggi; directed by James Mangold; TRT: 45:37)
The network's description: "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 (Quaid) 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 (Chiklis), 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 (Jason O'Mara) and his charming but impulsive son, Dixon (Taylor Handley). Ambitious Assistant District Attorney Katherine O'Connell (Carrie-Anne Moss), 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. Nicholas Pileggi, Greg Walker, Cathy Konrad, Arthur Sarkissian and James Mangold, who also directed the pilot, are the executive producers for CBS Television Studios."
What did they leave out? It's actually set in 1960, so there's not the usual needle drop of 1963's "Viva Las Vegas."
The plot in a nutshell: Title cards indicate "the following is based on the true story of Sheriff Ralph Lamb and the rise of the Las Vegas Strip." And with that we meet the man himself (Dennis Quaid), a cattle rancher who's none too thrilled by the latest airline charter scattering his herd. "Where this town is headed Ralph, you either take the money or you get the shaft," the terminal manager explains. "I made my choice. You don't like it, move your ranch." Said development is just the start of Lamb's problems: Samantha Meade, the governor's niece, has been murdered and the mayor, Ted Bennett (Michael O'Neill), wants him to spearhead the investigation while his sheriff is out of town. You see, Lamb was under Bennett's command in World War II where he built quite a reputation as an MP, making him a rare noble man in a town full of criminals.
Lamb reluctantly agrees to help, if only to keep the planes from flying over his land as a fee for his services. Solving Samantha's murder won't be easy: she worked as an accountant at The Savoy, the new home to Vincent Savino (Michael Chiklis), a pragmatic gangster fresh from Havana who's been tasked with fixing its cash flow problems, not to mention track down a rat who's been blabbing about their business. Lamb nevertheless has friends of his own as his book smart brother Jack (Jason O'Mara) and lothario son Dixon (Taylor Handley) serve as his deputies, while Katherine O'Connell (Carrie-Anne Moss), a childhood friend, is now an ADA. Together they scrape together the usual suspects - the boyfriend, the boss, the outlaw, the high roller, etc. - all while navigating the emerging politics of the land. Ultimately, Lamb gets his man... just as an even bigger job presents itself.
What works: Quaid and Chiklis both have their moments, whether it's the former's monosyllabic cowboy machismo (Biker thug, to Katherine: "Does that pretty mouth do more than talk?" Lamb, after punching him in the face: "That was rude.") or the latter's disgust with his short-sighted underlings (Savino: "This is the way you do business... with animals?"). And to its credit, nary an scene passes without someone getting punched in the face, a door being kicked down, a horse and/or car chase or a gun being leveled against a suspect. It's a rough-'n'-tumble show in a way you don't see very much anymore. By that same token, it's refreshing to watch a procedural that isn't burdened by the crutch of DNA evidence or psychological profiling, rather, as Lamb explains to Jack, their job is "ask a few questions, listen to what people have to say. What they don't say is just as important."
What doesn't: It just doesn't feel like the home run that is should be considering the auspices involved in front of and behind the camera. For all the above praise, I never quite felt the spark that makes you clamor for the next episode, nor an emotional heft that made me care about the characters. Said disconnection comes from a bevy of areas, from Jack and Dixon being giving little to do besides parrot Ralph and level a bon mot here or there to the strange dichotomy of everyone besides Savino practically falling into the fetal position when confronted by our heroes while Savino himself - presented as the heavy of the story - isn't intimidated and seems only peripherally concerned by Lamb and company.
In other words, there's no momentum to the story beyond the inherent mechanizations that require things to happen from week to week. Also hampering its efforts: some very clunky CGI and green screen work, both of which constantly remind you that you're watching a TV show. I realize it's a work in progress but there's more than a few cringe-worthy moments, including a sure to be promoted beat - complete with patented tough guy exchange - in which Lamb, backlit by the strip, chases down a biker on horseback. Thankfully they're combated with some legitimately cool showdowns, namely Lamb alone on a runway with only his rifle versus a fleeing suspect driving straight at him. What's not to love about shamelessly adrenaline-charged moments like that? Hopefully it's enough...
The bottom line: ...until the show clicks on all levels.