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‘Vegas’ follows the ‘Good Wife’ lead to tell longer story on CBS



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‘VEGAS’ ★★★

9 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays
on WBBM-Channel 2

Updated: October 26, 2012 6:05AM

Set in the ’60s and inspired by the life of a rancher-turned-sheriff, CBS’ new drama “Vegas” is a bit of gamble for a network full of police procedurals that rely on the latest whiz-bang technology to solve crimes.

But if anyone can afford to gamble, it’s CBS, the leader of the pack in total viewers and on the brink of bumping Fox out of the top spot with the younger demo, too.

“Vegas” follows CBS’ tried-and-true crime-of-the-week formula but sets it against a larger saga chronicling a desert town’s transformation into the entertainment mecca we know today. The heavy-hitter cast stars Dennis Quaid as real-life Ralph Lamb, a fourth-generation cowboy given a sheriff’s badge and the task of keeping the peace in rapidly changing Sin City.

“He’s had quite a life and that was certainly part of the attraction,” said Quaid, who hasn’t done episodic television since a guest stint on the ’70s cop show “Baretta.”

Other attractions for Quaid: place and time.

“We all have kind of a fascination with Las Vegas,” Quaid said, adding that he’s “fascinated with that era.”

“There was this optimism and exploration and sexiness,” he said. “It was electric back then.”

It also was, in many ways, the Wild West as various players descended on Vegas looking for a cut of the increasingly lucrative action.

One of those players is fictional Chicago gangster Vincent Savino (Michael Chiklis, “The Shield”), an amalgamation of wise guys who planted their flags up and down Fremont Street. The mob sends Savino to Vegas to run the casino at the Savoy.

“I had no interest in doing a straight procedural,” Chiklis said, adding that CBS executives sold him on the project by describing “Vegas” as a hybrid show that tries “to bridge the gap between what you see on cable and a network procedural.”

Showrunner Greg Walker (“Without a Trace,” “Smallville”) credits “The Good Wife” with opening the door for “Vegas” at CBS.

“Five years ago could we tell stories with this structure? I doubt it,” Walker said. “ ‘The Good Wife’ made it clear there’s an audience out there who will be willing to take a little procedure and a little bit of the saga story and love the mix.”

The original plan for “Vegas” was to put it on the big screen. “Casino” and “GoodFellas” writer Nicholas Pileggi penned the script as a movie about Lamb, 85, who served as Clark County sheriff for most of the ’60s and ’70s.

Producers felt the story was a better fit for television and beefed up the role of Savino to give Lamb a worthy rival. The series’ central tension comes from Lamb and Savino’s complicated, mostly antagonistic relationship.

“They’re not always against each other,” Walker said. “We certainly don’t want Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner every week.”

While the action takes place in Vegas, it’s heavily influenced by Chicago.

“Chicago’s a driving force on a couple levels,” Walker said. “It’s the Chicago sensibility which is really turning Vegas away from sawdust to carpet on the floors, turning it away from cowboy yodelers playing on stage to chanteuses at jazz outposts.

“Chicago also brings the violence that didn’t exist at that time,” he added. “The mob hierarchy is going to make their presence felt very early on — in a disruptive way — to Savino.”

In addition to Savino, another key Chicago character is played by Sarah Jones (“Alcatraz”). The smart, savvy daughter of a Chicago mobster, she moves to Vegas to oversee the Savoy casino’s count room.

Jones’ character doesn’t come on board until after the pilot, which would have benefitted from a greater female presence. That burden fell solely on Carrie-Anne Moss (“The Matrix”) as an assistant district attorney and bound-to-be future love interest for Quaid.

Jason O’Mara (“Terra Nova”) works well as Lamb’s even-keeled brother and deputy.

The crime at the crux of the pilot centers on the murder of a young casino worker. It’s your standard sleuthing fare that will look all the more mundane in the wake of the two “NCIS” shows — CBS’ gold standard for procedurals — that lead up to “Vegas’” 9 p.m. Tuesday time slot.

What “Vegas” lacks in the whodunit department it makes up for with the bigger narrative about a town up for grabs and the two men vying to get their hands on it.

Quaid and Chiklis have the makings of formidable foes. Odds are good that their story — and the story of Vegas itself — will draw more viewers than crime solving in a cowboy hat.

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