Poking fun at air travel is ubiquitous: It’s a staple of stand-up, and an airplane episode is practically a sitcom convention. “LA to Vegas” takes that well-known territory and makes it the entire comedy — like “Wings,” except we’re always on the plane, not always in the airport. The ridiculously titled Jackpot Airlines is about how a whole cadre of people get between home and work every weekend, and most of “LA to Vegas” takes place in the aisle of yet another cut-rate, no-assigned-seating Jackpot flight.
It’s a premise that feels both familiar and fresh, and “LA to Vegas” follows through with a great sense of timing. The show has a comedic patter that swiftly introduces its characters and puts them in a ridiculous situation, whether that is trying to hook up in an airplane bathroom (it’s disgusting) or talking the captain through landing the plane (he’s got the yips). The tone is sometimes so frothy that it threatens to foam over the top — is it really funny if Captain Dave (Dylan McDermott) steps into the cockpit half-drunk? — but in the three episodes sent to critics, the show reins in its mordant humor at just the right moments, making for an enjoyable excursion into the sky.
The lead is flight attendant Ronnie (Kim Matula), a young woman who is not a particularly good flight attendant but not much better at anything else, either. She’s joined by Bernard (Nathan Lee Graham), a better and snarkier attendant, and Captain Dave, an egotistical fabulist who seems stuck in the glory days of boozy air travel — like a neverending “Catch Me If You Can” flight montage. McDermott, who has been in absolutely laughable productions in the past, is at his best here — a little winsome, a little drunk, and entirely full of himself. He preens over his appearance with the vanity of a mating peacock, wielding his aviators like like a feather boa. And he’s just harmless enough to not read smarmy. In the third episode, “Two and a Half Pilots,” Captain Dave goes up against his archnemesis Captain Steve (guest star Dermot Mulroney, who may have been chosen, at least in part, because of how often the two actors are confused for each other) — leading to an ego-off, of sorts, as both men compete to see who can be the most pilot-macho. McDermott has rarely been the butt of the joke in his past work, which is too bad: He’s really good at it.
The show’s main problem is that it hasn’t quite figured out to do with Peter Stormare and Olivia Macklin, who both play annoying regulars. Stormare, with his preternatural screen presence, can carry off anything — including singing “Hava Nagila,” extremely off-key, with a bunch of Hasidic teenagers — but his character isn’t defined beyond “weird.” More worrying, Macklin’s stripper Nichole is just “trashy,” which isn’t going to go far before it starts being uncomfortable. But it’s early yet, and hopefully “LA to Vegas” has more to say about both characters.
And there’s something refreshing about an ensemble where all of the characters aren’t forced to like each other, or even work together. A few of the relationships in “LA to Vegas” are work relationships, but the rest are built out of the awkward camaraderie between fellow travelers. The sitcom has all the makings of a witty, fun half-hour. Turns out it’s much more fun to watch people be on a plane than to be on one yourself.