Ace actors can’t save ‘Vegas’

From left: Michael Chiklis, Kai Lennox, James Russo, Dennis Quaid, and Jason O’Mara in “Vegas,” a new drama from CBS.
From left: Michael Chiklis, Kai Lennox, James Russo, Dennis Quaid, and Jason O’Mara in “Vegas,” a new drama from CBS.Lorey Sebastian/CBS

It was exciting news when Dennis Quaid was announced as the star of the new period drama “Vegas” on CBS, premiering Tuesday night at 10.

One of Hollywood’s most reliable actors, Quaid has distinguished himself repeatedly on the big screen, playing everything from astronauts to ballplayers to closeted husbands to Jerry Lee Lewis.

“Vegas” pours his rugged frame into the boots of real-life Las Vegas rancher-turned-sheriff Ralph Lamb. It pits him against Lowell native Michael Chiklis from “The Shield,” playing ambitious gangster Vincent Savino. It teams him with Carrie-Anne Moss as tenacious assistant district attorney and potential love interest Katherine O’Connell, who has ties, like Lamb, to old Vegas. And it deposits the entire enterprise in the ’60s, when the strip was just erupting in the desert with all of the attendant wild-west debauchery and corruption. “Casino”/”Goodfellas” scribe Nicholas Pileggi is a co-creator, writer, and executive producer, and the real Ralph Lamb is consulting.

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So with so many exciting elements — top-notch cast, setting, and writer, not to mention a fantastic-looking re-creation of the old strip — why does “Vegas” feel so dull? (And make me slightly nostalgic for the late great Robert Urich, or more specifically private eye Dan Tanna and “Vega$”?)

Because in the debut episode, at least, it’s just a lot of set dressing built around what looks like will be a standard police procedural.

There is a crime of the week, complete with dead ends and red herrings, that just isn’t very interesting. There are cartoonishly corrupt politicians. There is Lamb’s well-meaning playboy of a son. And no matter how gifted the actors — even the supporting cast is stacked with familiar names and faces — some of the dialogue sounds stilted and even goofy at times. “Everybody’s here: Joey, Skins, Fat Frankie from New York,” says one of the gangsters, sounding like a parody at one point.

It feels easy to envision where all of this is headed: a weekly showdown between Lamb and Savino, an amalgam of real mobsters of the era; a budding but never quite consummated romance between Lamb and O’Connell; and crimes that showcase Lamb’s surprisingly sharp detective skills — honed as an MP in the Army — and nascent “CSI” concepts.

All of the actors are fine, even when delivering stiff dialogue. “I am the law here, Mr. Savino, and I will decide who’s breaking it,” says Quaid, propping a big gun on his shoulder. He wears it, and the dialogue, admirably lightly.

Given the talent in front of and behind the camera — and the chemistry between Quaid and Chiklis and Quaid and Moss — this is a benefit-of-the-doubt situation. The debut isn’t disastrous by any means, it just doesn’t crackle.

Surveying the electric towers going up in the desert, one character muses, “They didn’t put up these towers to light up a bunch of two-bit bingo parlors. Somebody was dreaming big.”

CBS didn’t bring in Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis to headline yet another cop show. “Vegas” needs to dream bigger, and here’s holding out hope that it will.

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