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Test Pilot: Vegas

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Lorey Sebastian/CBS

Test Pilot is a semiregular feature sharing my first impressions of the pilots for next season’s shows. These aren’t reviews, since these pilots can be rewritten, recast and retooled before airing, and the shows that eventually get on the air can prove much better or worse. But premature opinions are why God invented the Internet, so let’s get on with…

The Show: Vegas, CBS

The Premise: It’s the early 1960s, when the forces of commerce–with a boost from organized crime–were turning Las Vegas from a desert town into a gambling-and-nightlife paradise. As symbolized early in the pilot by a passenger jet roaring over a quiet desert scene, the new money is bringing with it disruption and trouble. Ralph Lamb (Dennis Quaid) is a local rancher deputized to keep some kind of order amid the influx; Vincent Savino (Michael Chiklis) is the Chicago gangster putting hooks into the town, and the source of much of Lamb’s troubles. It sets up a clash of genre types a la King Kong vs. Godzilla: the gangster vs. the cowboy.

First Impressions: Snooty TV critics like me like to knock CBS for its safe, familiar (and generally very successful) cop-procedural choices. But CBS also happens to air the best example–probably the only one right now–of how to do a show that incorporates the complexities of a good cable drama without getting canceled on broadcast TV: The Good Wife. Vegas isn’t as good as The Good Wife yet, but neither was The Good Wife when it started. What it does have in common are some smart choices in casting (Chiklis is far better used here than he was as a superhero-dad in No Ordinary Family), a willingness to venture into gray areas (Savino is a mobster but not a monster, Lamb is a good guy but a little rage-y) and, seemingly, a willingness to to longer-term story-building, balanced with cases-of-the-week. Just as it took a while for The Good Wife to show it was more than another law drama, it will be a few episodes before we see if this is more than a cop show with some nice period detail. But I like that it’s trying.

Do I Want to Watch Another Episode? I’ll roll the dice.