'Vegas' review: When a show strains to be good, mediocre things can happen

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Image Credit: Monty Brinton/CBS

Vegas is a show that’s trying hard to be good. The strain shows; it hasn’t gelled yet. This week’s third episode added some nice details to the show’s mob storyline — Jonathan Banks has a job post-Breaking Bad — but the depiction of Dennis Quaid’s character, reluctant law-man Ralph Lamb, often leads this excellent actor into some silly moments.

The good elements first: Last week’s introduction of Sarah Jones’ Mia Rizzo as a financial-wiz overseer sent from the Chicago mob adds a welcome degree of icy coolness that will make Michael Chiklis’ Vincent Savino keep his fedora clamped over his hairless dome. This week, we met Mia’s bad-news dad, a testy loan shark, Johnny Rizzo (Anthony “Red” Cervelli, who has the hungry, mean look of a Tex Avery cartoon wolf). Johnny made quite a mess of the Savoy Casino, beating various people to within an inch of their lives, and yet his daughter’s loyalty remained believable.

Jonathan Banks arrived as Chicago boss Angelo, and while the role was so underwritten Banks need do little more than flick his lizard eyes back and forth to project danger, it was fun to see Savino go all deferential to him. Really, all the casino stuff is playing out like a tossed-away episode of Michael Mann’s great old Crime Story series, without the atomic bombs and neon nueroses.

Now the more problematic elements. Someone has to get a fix on Quaid’s Lamb: Is he a laconic tough guy in the Elmore Leonard mode, or a cornpone hick with a florid sense of decency? Both aspects were on display this week. Faced with the task of proving that Savino and company are laundering money (a job assigned by the very weary-looking Carrie-Anne Moss, who seems already to be eyeing the show’s exit door yearningly), Lamb gave out with this howler: “Elephants — you know how to eat ‘em? One bite at a time.” Okay, I kinda know what he was going for there, but the folksy metaphor didn’t work.

The same goes for Lamb’s sidekicks, his brother and son, played by Jason O’Mara and Taylor Handley. So far, O’Mara is being used as a robot programmed to deliver expository dialogue explaining the week’s criminal case, while Handley is positioned as a younger, hornier Barney Fife, not a position any young actor wants to be in.

Lots of people, including me, are straining mightily to like Vegas, given its stars and its pedigree (Nicholas Pileggi and James Mangold among its producers). But it really needs to sharpen its focus on Lamb, who only comes to life when he’s kneecapping a bank robber or socking some hood in the jaw. Which is rather a waste of Dennis Quaid.

Are you feeling Vegas more than I am?

Twitter: @kentucker

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