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TV Tonight: Can Vegas Be The Good Wife in a Cowboy Hat?

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Cliff Lipson — CBS

As I say every time I write a Test Pilot preview of a new fall show over the summer, those posts are not final reviews, because the pilots of new series are often revised or recast before airing. But sometimes they’re not, nor do the networks send any further episodes for critics to judge from, in which case my initial impression might as well stand as my review. That’s what happened with CBS’ Vegas, debuting tonight, so I’ll send you to my Test Pilot post for my first-and-so-far-only impression.

Bottom line: while the pilot didn’t blow me away, there’s enough in its premise (the mob comes to Las Vegas in the early ’60s), its casting (Michael Chiklis as a gangster and Dennis Quaid as his sheriff adversary) and its seeming ambition that make me more interested in it than in most new shows this fall.

I don’t get to use the words “interested” and “new CBS drama” very often, for reasons that should cause that network no shame; CBS focuses mainly on crime shows that follow familiar patterns and involve little week-to-week story and character development, which excites me very little but draws in millions of viewers who just want to watch a well-executed cop show on a weeknight. (Example: the pilot of CBS’s Sherlock Holmes drama, Elementary, is not nearly as innovative as the British Sherlock, but it’s crisply written, and Jonny Lee Miller is commanding as the neurotic sleuth. I will probably not watch it very much, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be on the air for a very, very long time.)

The one exception lately is The Good Wife, also on CBS and right now the best drama on broadcast TV. (That’s a bit of a tallest-midget honor, but seriously, it’s an excellent show.) It’s not a massive hit, especially in demographics, but it’s survived into its fourth season because it combines bedrock CBS material—a familiar legal franchise with court cases of the week—with running stories about politics, sex, power and ethics. It figured out how to get cable-drama ambition and nuance in a format that works for CBS. (And the return episode, airing Sunday, is pretty terrific.) But CBS hasn’t been falling over itself to make another Good Wife the way it made a jillion crime shows with abbreviations in their names.

Vegas may not be the next Good Wife either—I may have made some fans a little too giddy by making the comparison here and in the headline. The pilot has a strong sense of mood and place but not yet a really original voice. It could easily fall into cornball mob clichés on the one hand (we’ve seen too many lame attempts to do The Sopranos under broadcast TV limitations) or become mainly a cop procedural on the other.

But it is at least attempting to do a similar thing—combining a bigger story or stories with the kind of anthology crime shows that viewers expect from CBS—and if nothing else, we should be glad CBS is trying. CBS doesn’t have to be synonymous with safe, formula cop shows; after all, this is the same network that once made Wiseguy and EZ Streets in the ’80s and ’90s. So while I’m not putting Vegas on my must-watch list right now, it’s at least nice to see that the network that recently defined Las Vegas through CSI is still willing to gamble.