CBS' new drama Vegas has made a lot of headlines by putting its money on Dennis Quaid, who's making his debut on series television. But is the network also taking a bit of a gamble?
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Quaid plays real-life rancher-turned-sheriff Ralph Lamb, who begrudgingly agrees to police 1960s Las Vegas against Michael Chiklis' Vincent Savino and other mobsters who are trying to get a foothold in the casinos. Although the drama is built on a CBS-friendly, case-of-the-week model, it's also a set in the past. And last season's The Playboy Club and Pan Am are non-living proof that period pieces can struggle to find an audience.
Executive producer Nicholas Pileggi, the man behind such mob stories as Goodfellas and Casino, isn't worried. "This is a fascinating period," he tells TVGuide.com. "This is a period that you haven't seen before. It's when all of the giant mob casinos get built. It's when the FBI and Robert F. Kennedy go after Jimmy Hoffa. It's the time when Howard Hughes moves into a hotel and starts buying up casinos. It's the most exciting period of Las Vegas history, and I've never seen anything about this period, really. It's the formative years."
Executive producer Greg Walker says the show's interesting backdrop is key in making Quaid's Ralph Lamb a complex character. He's not just fighting against the mob — he's fighting to keep his simpler way of life.
"His reluctance drives most of his actions," Walker says. "He really is a guy who would rather stay on his ranch, but he does have self-interest. A Vegas that's not overrun by development and mob corruption is a Vegas that he's familiar with and a Vegas that he can thrive in. His reluctance is tempered by the fact that he's one of the few people who can do what he can do — he has the kind of intelligence and courage to stand up to this ... neon wave coming over the hillside."
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Just as Lamb isn't your typical lawman, Savino isn't an ordinary mobster. "He's an outlier within an organization," Walker says. "[He's] trying to change it from within and it's very reluctant and resistant to change. So, he has two career paths: Either become Steve Wynn or become Bugsy Siegel. And the way that he navigates and negotiates the path with his mob bosses and superiors will really determine whether or not he's successful."
But can one man really take on the mob? "There is a little David and Goliath in there," Pileggi says. "But this is a David with a lot of power. He is the law in Las Vegas. He has tremendous power. He is in charge of the work cards. He can keep you from working in a casino and he also is in charge of the liquor licenses. He does have the kind of clout that they have to stop and listen to. ... He could shut them down."
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Then again, Lamb isn't truly operating alone. He recruits his brother Jack (Jason O'Mara) and his son Dixon (Taylor Handley) as his deputies. And he also reconnects with Katherine (Carrie-Anne Moss), a former neighbor who is now the district attorney. Naturally, there may be some sparks there. "She sees Ralph Lamb who was the high school senior, the quarterback," Walker says. "He's a guy who she's always had a soft spot for, even though their families quarreled. Now they're both grown up and there's a mutual attraction."
Before Lamb can even take a close look at Savino, he'll have to clean up his own department. "He will have a problem with corruption, temptation," Walker says. "Both financially and sometimes even the more difficult one: What happens when you amass too much power?"
So could Lamb and Savino have more in common than it seems? "The real Ralph Lamb and a lot of the the wise guys in Vegas weren't purely good or evil," Walker says. "We're interested in the ones who operated in that gray area. [Lamb and Savino] end up finding that often they aren't their worst enemy and that they combine together to fight people with whom they have a common interest to fight against. I think they need each other at times to get rid of the kind of greater bad."
Of course, history tells us that both men are ultimately fighting a losing battle. "One of the most intriguing and tantalizing parts of the story is that these two men are fighting to preserve a vision of Vegas that, ultimately we know 40 years later, neither of them won," Walker says. "The casino empire started by the mobs no longer has any mob ownership at all. The ranching world Lamb is trying to preserve really doesn't have a foothold in Las Vegas anymore.
"What I love about this is all this sound and fury," Walker continues. "I don't think Vegas would be what it is today without these type of individuals fighting for this. What Vegas represents today, and I may get shot for saying this, is the most grandiose and successful collaboration between criminal enterprise and government in the history of civilization. So, these guys are really the founding fathers of that city that we know today."
Vegas premieres Tuesday at 10/9c on CBS.
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