Given its enviable stability, CBS allows itself roughly one bet each season that dares to stray, ever so slightly, beyond its (and its audience’s) comfort zone. Enter “Vegas,” a powerfully cast drama with an extra touch of atmosphere thanks to the period setting — namely, Las Vegas circa 1960, when the Golden Nugget sign wasn’t surrounded by much other than sand. What emerges, alas, isn’t as beguiling as the promise of those initial images, though the pairing of Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis provides a level of star wattage to smooth the rough edges.
Rooted in fact, the plot features Quaid as Ralph Lamb, a cowboy/rancher/military veteran whose irritation about planes flying low over his property prompts him to literally ride his horse to the airport and pummel those responsible.
An arriving plane, however, also brings a mob boss named Vincent Savino (Chiklis), there to suck from the growing town’s teat, as well as mete out punishment to those who fall short of expectations.
Reluctantly, through circumstances that prove a little too pat and expedited in the pilot script from mob maven Nicholas Pileggi (“Casino,” “Goodfellas”) and Greg Walker (“Without a Trace”), Lamb agrees to become sheriff, bringing along his younger brother (Jason O’Mara) and grown son (Taylor Handley) to dole out frontier justice, “Bonanza” style.
Yet if the premise sets up a promising square-off of titans, the premiere retreats to a rather predictable, time-killing murder mystery, which serves to establish Lamb’s new role, but also smacks more of CBS’ stodgier procedurals than a character-driven drama.
On the plus side, the show has been cast to the gills. Beyond the aforementioned principals — with Quaid largely limited to gruff snarls and scowls but still feeling very much like a CBS star — there’s Carrie-Ann Moss (“The Matrix”) as an assistant D.A. who grew up next to the Lambs.
Whether these talented actors have anything worth saying could be another matter, based on how narrowly the pilot approaches this intriguing slice of history. No one is asking for “Mad Men” (or for that matter, CBS’ last Nevada-set gamble “Viva Laughlin”), and we all saw how another network show with a mob hook, “The Playboy Club,” worked out; still, situating “Vegas” against such a rich backdrop and stocking the shelves with this ensemble merely to crank out an earlier-vintage “CSI” would represent a waste, indeed.
So if “Vegas” is going to hit the jackpot — or at least avoid becoming a creative bust — CBS will have to roll the dice a little. Otherwise, despite its glossy surface and enticing playbill, what happens in “Vegas” might as well stay there.