We watch... so you don't have to.

Fall '03: "Las Vegas" -- Pick A Show, Any Show

My five-year-old niece graduated from preschool this summer, in a ceremony complete with diplomas and munchkin-sized caps and gowns. And as part of the event, along with the slightly disorderly processional and ceremonial singing of Raffi tunes, the preschool teacher announced what each of her young charges wanted to be when they grew up.

My niece's choice? A teacher and a mommy.

We have pinned the blame for this on my mother, who holds an disproportionately large influence over her granddaughter. My mother is both a teacher and a mommy herself -- which, in itself, is pretty compelling circumstantial evidence and certainly enough to acquit other likely culprits -- and has thus concluded that those occupations are the most fitting for young professional women. The mommying, mostly, and not so much the teaching. She is relentlessly persuasive, my mother -- lock her in a room with Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem and Naomi Wolf for an hour or so, and they would emerge desperate to receive their teaching certification and start issuing progeny at a speedy clip. So, really, what chance does a five-year-old have?

A few weeks back, we were baby-sitting the niece, when she announced her latest career plans. "Teacher and mommy?" I asked, knowing full well my mother's 24-7-approach to propaganda. "No," the niece declared. "I want to be an artist and astronaut."

Which, you have to concede, is a dramatic shift in focus, skills and basic job requirements from the occupation of teacher and mommy. And I'm told this is only the latest in a line of seismic shifts in my niece's career goals. At last count, potential vocations included -- but were not necessarily limited to -- horseback rider, actress, drill major, jeweler, painter, mermaid and kitty. Not kitty doctor. Just kitty.

Hey, she's five years old. What five year old without the middle name Amadeus knows what he or she wants to be when she grows up? I figure she's got another three, four years to settle on something or another and commit to it for the next couple of decades. Five years if she's some sort of slacker.

Much like my niece, the new dramatic series Las Vegas is not really sure what it wants to be when it grows up. However, unlike my niece -- who has an entire lifetime in front of her to suss matters out -- Las Vegas is on the airwaves now and its window of opportunity to pick a direction and stick with it is rapidly slamming shut. My niece can at least blame her capricious whims on the fact that she's only now reached the kindergarten years; Las Vegas has no such luxury, unless, of course, it comes out that the show is produced, written and edited by five-year-olds.

Which is not necessarily outside the realm of possibility, come to think of it.

I watched the first five-pack of Las Vegas episodes from start to finish, with no distractions, no multi-tasking, not even any potty breaks. From the opening teaser to the final credit, I have given five hours worth of Las Vegas my undivided attention.

And I have no idea what this show is supposed to be about. In that sense, I have a lot in common with Las Vegas' producers.

I mean, the ostensible leads of the show are the great James Caan, who plays the head of security at the fictional Montecito Resort & Casino, and the not-even-fractionally-as-great Josh Duhamel, who plays Anakin to Caan's Obi-Wan. Each episode has featured them thwarting some sort of plot to cheat the Montecito out of its hard-earned millions, whether it's a sophisticated blackjack scam using X-ray specs and PDAs or a sting operation to bring down the casino-swindling network of Elliot Gould. And while it's kind of odd to be rooting for a major corporation to prevent enterprising-if-amoral crooks from swiping money that it's already swiped fair and square from folks like you and me -- sort of like a watching a show where you root for representatives of the cable company to track down and prosecute people with illegal cable boxes -- this is what Las Vegas is about, is it not? A slick-and-glitzy look at both the glamorous nightlife and the seedy demimonde of Las Vegas through the eyes of two men -- one of them talented, the other not so much -- who ferret out the con-men and shysters who give gambling a bad name.


Well... not exactly. Because Las Vegas has also spent a goodly portion of its first few weeks on the air showcasing the dynamic duo of Caan and Duhamel as they fight crime. In episode two, Duhamel's Danny McCoy tracks down the loan shark what done killed his best friend, while in episode five, Caan's Big Ed Deline devotes his energies toward capturing the serial date rapist who made the poor career move of attempting to ply his trade on Big Ed's daughter. So that would make Las Vegas a gritty crime drama, by most people's standards.

Except that it's not -- and not just because both the murder and date-rape storylines were wrapped up long before it would take a microwaved burrito to cool. No, Las Vegas isn't a gritty crime drama or a show about putting the skids on scam artists in the coo-coo-crazy Vegas scene because it seems far more interested in soapy contretemps and cheesy entanglements. Take Big Ed's daughter, Delinda -- played to deleterious effect by the uninterestingly wooden Molly Sims. She's dating Danny, which makes things awkward for his working relationship with Big Ed, not to mention the other women on Las Vegas (Vanessa Marcil, Marsha Thomason and the always delightful, never objectionable Nikki Cox) who wouldn't mind taking Danny's roulette wheel for a spin. Only, by episode four, Delinda's handed Danny his walking papers, which ratchets up the awkwardness all around and increases the potential for various and sundry Sweeps-inspired couplings. So you might reasonably conclude that Las Vegas really is a Melrose Place with two-drink minimums, progressive slots and no Andrew Shue stinking up the joint.

Again, you'd be wrong, because when it's not featuring gritty crime, light-hearted casino capers, and cheesy soap-opera romances between Josh Duhamel and a toothy human blank, Las Vegas is also working in plotlines about the various and sundry guests visiting the Montecito each week. We've been treated to stories about a hypocritical U.S. Senator who loves slot-machines and strippers as much as he loves decrying America's moral decay, a screwy performer at one of the casino's shows who thinks he's actually King Arthur, Ed's yokel cousin from Trenton marrying a grifter in a kooky Vegas wedding, and -- in perhaps the most sensible Las Vegas plotline of all -- a suave illusionist/psychic putting the moves on Nikki Cox. So Las Vegas is all about people coming to Sin City for adventure, for excitement, for love exciting and new. All that's missing is Fred "Gopher" Grandy trying to find a way to sneak Charo into the nightclub and Ted Lange doing that double-finger-pointing hepcat thing of his while he mixes Jimmy Caan up a screwdriver.

Yes, Las Vegas is all these things and more. Which is to say that Las Vegas is a big, sprawling, directionless mess.

A typical installment of Las Vegas features three, and sometimes as many as four, separate plotlines, each one featuring a different focus and contrasting tone. Some plots are light-hearted and zany, others are as serious as a heart attack -- all are half-developed, forced, and rushed to their conclusion, so that the show can zip off to its next half-developed, forced and rushed story arc. It's as if the producers of Las Vegas are throwing whatever they can against the wall to see if anything sticks; whatever does, well, there's your show. Las Vegas feels like it was assembled at the whim of a focus group and shaped by the consensus of a committee -- and considering the ability of focus groups and committees to settle on one direction and see it through to the bitter end, that's not at all good for Las Vegas' prospects for improvement.

(More than idle speculation has brought me to the conclusion that nearly everyone in the employ of General Electric is besieging the producers of Las Vegas with notes and suggestions. When the show was first announced last spring, Cox's character was supposed to be a hooker. In the assorted fall preview stories about Las Vegas appearing just before show debuted, we were told that Cox wasn't portraying a hooker at all, but rather an escort. By the time Las Vegas debuted, Cox's Mary Connell was introduced to viewers as the casino's "special events director" -- a special events director who referred to her well-to-do gentlemen companions as "dates" much in the same way that an escort or hooker might, but a special events coordinator nevertheless. This sudden change in professions for Cox's character, coupled with some rather obvious dubbed-in dialogue that expunged all mentions of hooking, suggests that someone somewhere in the Peacock Network concluded at the last minute that a show featuring a character making a go of it in the oft-misunderstood world of prostitution might result in NBC fielding an angry phone call or two, leading to immediate changes to the script. More damning for Las Vegas, it suggests that the show is being assembled on the fly, and you don't exactly have to be Victor Hugo to figure out what that means as far as cohesive plotting, narrative pacing and long-term character development.)

Lord, I want to like this show. It features gambling, something I have a Bill Bennett-sized jones for, and centers on Las Vegas, perhaps the most narratively interesting city this side of Dickensian London or Leonard-esque South Florida. I hold most Vegas-themed movies and shows near and dear to my heart. I believe "Ocean's 11" -- the original with Sammy, Frank and Dino and not the remake with the ungainly broad from "Erin Brockovich" -- to be a watershed film in the American cinematic canon, a testament to a simpler time when you could drink and smoke and carouse and rob four casinos on New Year's Eve and the only consequence you'd have to worry about would be getting the stink-eye from Cesar Romero. Most important, Las Vegas affords me the opportunity to watch Nikki Cox, under the guise of legitimate TV criticism, thus sparing me from the indignity of having to come up with excuses the wife will believe about the Web sites I've been visiting lately.

But I can't like this show. I certainly can't recommend it. Another episode of Las Vegas' mismashed plots and rudderless story-telling, and I'm not even sure I can endure it.

Which is not to say Las Vegas is beyond salvation. If I were running things, the first thing I'd do -- after blocking all incoming calls from Burbank and carelessly "losing" all the "helpful" advice sent my way from well-meaning NBC executives -- would be to sharpen the show's focus. I'd make it all about Jimmy Caan and his young apprentice, busting cheats and giving the bum's rush to scoundrels. Las Vegas has four female characters, which is about two too many -- I'd giving Vanessa Marcil her walking papers and return Molly Sims to the forest where the lonely woodsman first carved her from the husk of an oak tree. I'd try an capture that 1960 "Ocean's 11" vibe -- in the tone, in the dialogue, in the overall attitude -- with just enough of an update to the look and feel of the show to make it relevant to today's audience.

But that's just what I'd do. Las Vegas could go in a completely opposite direction -- make Molly Sims the star of the show and throw in enough credulity-straining plot twists to make Dynasty viewers roll their eyes, for all I care. Just do something, anything, definitive with the show's focus and direction. Because even the worst decision the producers could make would be better than the non-decision that's made Las Vegas the amorphous mess it is right now.


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