I had high hopes when I first heard about this show. The classic Las Vegas era, the mob, Ralph Lamb, Nick Pileggi, Dennis Quaid with that killer smile and Michael Chiklis as the bad guy, what’s not to love?
Well, as it turns out, the show itself.
We are now 12 episodes in and have eight left to go and it’s lost four million viewers since its debut back in September.
So, what went wrong? Well, for one thing, the premise of the show has hampered it. The Murder of the Week does this series no favors. More attention is given to the crime of the week than to the characters or the story.
This show had tons of potential. Who doesn’t like that era of Las Vegas history, back when the mob ran the town? Even some of the set and production design was eye popping. But, it quickly became apparent that though it may be eye popping, attention to detail was not going to be a strong suit.
There have been many complaints about the show and the fact that it’s on CBS and how everyone knows how mediocre that can be. Well, for the majority of shows on CBS that may fall into the mediocre trap, when it comes to dramas, it has two that have broken that rule of thumb and they both have procedural elements to them.
Person of Interest and Elementary both are strong on character and both are invested in the larger, longer story they are telling in a way that so far has eluded the crew of Vegas. Like Vegas, each show has a crime of the week. But where they differ is that these shows have taken the time to invest in the characters and the stories they are telling.
They are very different stories with Person of Interest being a story about two men from vastly different backgrounds who come together to work together and in doing so offer each other a redemption long thought unobtainable. Elementary is a modern telling of the Sherlock Holmes story with the twist that Dr. Watson is a woman.
Showrunner Greg Walker (Without a Trace) is on record saying he wanted the show to balance story and character with the procedural element much the way that The Good Wife balances the case of the week with the larger story of Alicia Florek. When I read that quote I thought it meant the producers of Vegas had a firm grasp on the story they wanted to tell and the characters that would drive that story. Now I wonder if Walker has ever watched an episode of Good Wife or just read the supportive reviews and thought that would be enough.
Where all three shows differ from Vegas and what makes Vegas so disappointing for so many is in the larger story it is telling. At this point, what is the larger story they are telling? Do you know? Because I’m not so sure I know any more and even more disappointing, I'm quickly not caring.
In the beginning, the producers wanted us to believe that the conflict would be between two clashing cultures, the western and the gangster films if you’ll pardon the analogy (Howard Hawks/John Ford vs Wild Bill Wellman), between two men vying for control of America’s playground during its glory days.
From my corner of the couch, that’s not even close to the story they are telling. What little conflict they had, they undercut with the episode about mid-way through this season, when Ralph was protecting Vincent. They had steaks together, shared a bit of history and then Vincent basically saved Ralph’s life.
These two have moved from hating one another to basically being friendly adversaries but what ever conflict they had going has now been regulated to the back seat and is fizzling fast.
They are trying to create conflict between Vincent and Rizzo but it falls flat because it feels so predictable. At this point, why not introduce another mob family and set the stage for a struggle between Chicago, the new mob family and Vincent with Ralph trying to stop it from cascading over into the streets and deserts of Las Vegas?
Even that story , as sparse as it is, is more engaging just thinking about than the show we are currently watching.
A charismatic and engaging Big Bad (think Boyd Crowder or Mags Bennett from Justified, Gus Fring from Breaking Bad, Bobby Cavannale from this season of Broadwalk Empire to name just a few) would go a long way to invigorating this show. I thought we had it when Jonathan Banks showed up but like all the interesting supporting characters, they killed that one off.
From Breaking Bad to Mad Men, to Justified, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire and a handful of others, television drama is the midst of a wonderful renaissance where characterization and story play integral parts in cutting the wheat from the chaff, the great from the mediocre.
Vegas could have been, if not a great show, a better show than the one we got if only the producers had aimed a little higher and hadn’t just settled on being your typical CBS procedural.
They had plenty of the right ingredients- the actors are all good but I don’t think I’m the only one who misses that immersion into that time period that you get with Mad Men. The crew of Mad Men marinades itself into that era but Vegas only seems to play at it. It doesn’t feel like a period drama because no one from the producers on down, treat it as a period drama. There’s more atmosphere to set the tone and pace of a show in the opening credits of Justified than in an entire episode of Vegas and that’s not a good thing for a show that makes such a big deal about its early 1960s milieu.
The creator and executive producer of Vegas is Nick Pileggi, the guy who brought us the books that became Casino and Goodfellas. He has become the go-to guy for stories about mobsters, what makes them tick, why they do what they do and the price they pay for the world they choose to live in. The bad news for us as viewers, none of that insight is on view in Vegas.
I don’t know if the show will get renewed for a second season. As I said, it is down from 15 million viewers for the pilot to eleven million watching last week’s episode. CBS does seem to have faith in it, keeping it following its two big guns, NCIS and NCIS: LA.
But, it would be nice if the producers would aim higher and realize that just being a typical CBS procedural show won’t make you part of the television drama renaissance we are currently enjoying. To join that club you don't have to be on basic or premium cable but you do have to bring your “A” game and have a story worth telling.
Until the producers of Vegas realize that, they will continue to crap out.
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