When Nielsen released its list of 2012’s most-watched regularly scheduled TV shows on Dec. 11, one of the biggest surprises was how few scripted programs made the top 10. Once the staple of American household viewing, only two dramas won places among the many reality competitions that have come to dominate primetime in recent years (no sitcoms made the list), and both air on CBS: NCIS and Vegas. Of the two, only Vegas is a new series.
Vegas has broken from the freshman pack because it does something no other scripted network show does right now—it goes so old-school, it’s positively cutting-edge.
Though much has been made of Vegas’ setting in the 1960s, it isn’t the cow-town backdrop or the glitzy, bouffant costuming that make it so refreshingly retro. Rather, it’s a story that takes tarnished, long-dormant depictions of Wild West heroism and polishes them up for a new audience.
For decades, from The Godfather films of the 1970s to The Sopranos in the 1990s to Boardwalk Empire currently airing on HBO, the vast majority of screen stories concerning the mafia underworld have presented criminals as the protagonists. The characters might be conflicted about mob life and they might not, but audiences have increasingly been asked to identify with and root for violent, amoral men.
Vegas, however, (ironically created by Nicholas Pileggi, the screenwriter of the films Casino and Goodfellas) goes back to the conceit that was popular during the era it depicts. Our main character, Sheriff Ralph Lamb (Dennis Quaid) is actually the one trying to enforce law and order. He’s the antithesis of the kind of corrupt lawman we typically see on television and in movies these days, the kind his co-star Michael Chiklis won an Emmy for portraying on the critically hailed cable hit The Shield. He doesn’t take bribes, he doesn’t want power beyond what is necessary to fulfill the duties of his office, and he isn’t interested in being a high roller on the flashy new scene Chiklis’ Chicago mobster, Vincent Savino, offers. The only privilege Ralph tries to wrangle with his badge is the privilege to be left alone to run his ranch.
Given how jaded American audiences have become to the idea of uncompromised integrity, Ralph’s earnest cowboy ethics could easily come off as cornpone were it not for the strength of Quaid’s performance. The gravelly voice and impudent grin that once made him an A-list movie star serve him well here, and a line that would come off hackneyed in the hands of a lesser actor has a steely simplicity when uttered by Quaid. But more impressive is the reflective sadness with which he infuses Ralph’s quieter moments—we sense that somewhere in the back of his mind Ralph knows the world of high stakes and high-rises will soon trample his dream of quiet farm life into the Nevada dust. This is the tension that draws viewers in, far more than the show’s cop-and-robbers intrigues.
As for the men Ralph is trying to corral, with the exception of Chiklis’ character, they don’t vary much from the same mafiosos audiences have been treated to for years, and there’s little shock left to be had from seeing a gangster fly off the handle and kick a poor waiter’s head in. Thankfully, none of their antics are as objectionable as their big-screen big brothers’—we understand that plenty of corruption and violence is going on off camera, but for the most part the producers refrain from glorying in it.
Though so far it’s much less explicit than most of the other dramas it’s competing with, Vegas isn’t so old-fashioned it avoids the smatterings of profanity and occasional suggestive scenes that are part and parcel of primetime programming. No doubt Ralph Lamb would prefer it were otherwise, but as he’s learning, that’s not the world we live in anymore.