The Midcentury Effect that rippled outward from “Mad Men” and produced “Pan Am,” “The Playboy Club” and “Magic City” has now tossed “Vegas” upon our shores. Premiering Tuesday on CBS, it is set in 1960 in the City sometimes called Sin, when men were men and women were showgirls and Las Vegas was still an expression — or an impression, perhaps — of the Wild West and not the fantastical, international theme park it has since become.
The series comes from Nicholas Pileggi — who cowrote the screenplays for Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” from his own books — with “Without a Trace” vet Greg Walker aboard to give it that TV shape and pace. It’s not a perfect show, but to judge by its pilot, it has good bones and excellent prospects, with a cast that knows just how much fun it can have before it seems as if it is just having fun. Indeed, murder and mayhem notwithstanding, there’s a lot of comedy in it.
What makes the series seem particularly viable is the way it balances its twin leads: rancher-turned-sheriff-but-still-a-rancher Ralph Lamb (Dennis Quaid) and fresh-to-town mob guy Vincent Savino (Michael Chiklis), who has come to take charge of the Savoy, an Atomic Age casino that has been leaking money.
Though one is “good” and one “bad,” they are fundamentally alike. Neither stands on ceremony. Each in his own way in his own world is more concerned with justice than with rules — “I’m the law here, Mr. Savino, and I will decide who’s breaking it,” says Lamb — and each has a stake in keeping order, in discouraging cheats and hotheads. Each would also like to be left alone to take care of business.
Pileggi and Walker set up a host of charged thematic dichotomies around their hero and antihero: the future versus the past, the city versus the land, East versus West, the timeless against the transient, the (sort of) native contrasted with the (vaguely) foreign. (Italians in the desert! Eating spaghetti!) The typical midcentury story is one of Big Dreams at a Moment of Change, but “Vegas” doesn’t reflexively side with the new.
What I’ve read about the historical Lamb — he’s a real person — suggests that this screen version resembles the original only broadly. He was not, at least, the reluctant hero shown here, who takes what he assumes will be the temporary job of sheriff in exchange for a promise from the mayor to keep landing airliners away from his cattle. But we like our heroes reluctant (and outside the system); it keeps their righteousness on the right side of self-righteousness.
“That’s a battle you’re not going to win,” says Carrie-Anne Moss’ assistant DA, of Lamb’s war with the planes. (Not all the women are showgirls, after all.).
“Who said it was about winning?” he replies.
Quaid, a handsomely weathered 58, looks good in his cowboy suit. A young old coot (youngish, anyway), he’s acquired some of the gravitas another era’s aging leading men brought to the postwar western — actors such as Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea and Jimmy Stewart, who, freed of their previous prettiness, could finally let a little dark side show.
Chiklis, who also wears his part well, is less crazy as a crook than he was in “The Shield” as a cop; his mobster has a temper, as all mobsters must, but if the show is going to last beyond a season on network television, he’s going to want your affection too. As Lamb’s deputized brother Jack, Jason O’Mara likewise seems more comfortable here than he did in “Terra Nova” or “Life on Mars”; I am glad for him, even relieved, in an almost proprietary way.
Not every moment works. A scene in which a motorcycle gang is corralled like cattle with police cars and pickup trucks plays as silly, and would be even if it actually happened. And the murder mystery that gets the story going is itself less than compelling — I was never moved to try to solve it on my own, nor did I ever really care who done it. But there is much else to see.
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14-V (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for violence)