Tuesday, February 22, 2005

What is Las Vegas?

No, not the city in Nevada, I'm talking about the TV series on NBC on Monday nights. It's an hour long, has people punching each other and stars James Caan, so it must be an action-drama, right? Actually, after careful consideration, I've come to the conclusion that Las Vegas is the latest hour-long situation comedy and more accurately an action-comedy. I do know that anyone who actually thinks this show is even remotely realistic in its depiction of operations at a major casino resort - something I saw in a user commentary on IMDB while I was researching this little piece - should have their heads examined.

There have been hour-long comedies practically since the inception of network television but virtually all were variety shows with a large component of comedy or sketch shows like Laugh-In or Love American Style. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz did some one hour shows Desi-Lucy Comedy Hour - in fact one episode ran 75 minutes - with them in character as Lucy and Ricky throughout not just the episodes but the series. The first really modern hour long sitcom was probably Moonlighting, although both the Directors Guild of America and the Television Academy followed the "traditional" definition of a drama being any hour-long show (although I mentioned in an earlier post that this definition only really became accepted by the mid-1960s) when giving out awards. Only the Golden Globes put Moonlighting in their comedy-musical category. Northern Exposure won Emmys as a dramatic series as well when, given the quirky nature of the characters and the situations that faced the lead character, Dr. Joel Fleischman, it could only be described as a comedy. At least the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild recognised that the show was a comedy in their awards, although the DGA only switched the designation for their 1994 awards. The first hour-long show to be fully recognised by the Emmys, the Directors Guild and most other award giving organizations was Ally McBeal.

So why do I think that Las Vegas is a comedy? For me the big thing is that although there have been episodes that are primarily dramatic, most of the episodes are largely comedic. Take Monday's episode. From the title, "To Protect And Serve Manicotti" it was played broadly and with a definite comedic pacing. In the "A" plot, casino boss and former CIA agent "Big" Ed Deline (James Caan) and his friend Frank (played by Sylvester Stallone) try to stop a protection racket directed against the mother of a showgirl. The interaction between Caan and Stallone is not unlike that in a Hope and Crosby "Road" picture. In the "B" plot, Security Chief Danny McCoy (Josh Duhamel) tries to track down a customer who cheated the casino out of a hundred thousand dollars before Big Ed finds out that they gave the guy a marker without checking with him. In the "C" plot Nessa, Sam and Delinda (Marsha Thomason, Vanessa Marcil and Molly Sims; Nikki Cox as Mary Connell - Danny's best friend and occasional love interest - didn't have much to do in this episode) each go to extremes to get Joe Rogan to pick her over the other two to represent the hotel on an episode of Fear Factor. The "B" plot is perhaps the only one that could possibly be considered as dramatic, and the way Duhammel carries himself and his character make that a rather absurd assertion.

The best reason for watching Las Vegas is to see James Caan play his tough guy image for a laugh. It's abundantly clear that Big Ed is not someone to be trifled with but his bluster is just a little too showy to be taken seriously by the audience, and he does tend to range between chewing the scenery a bit, and playing a low key "dese, dem and dose" kind of guy. I'm also willing to bet that Caan is the reason what the show has been able to attract actors like Stallone and Alec Baldwin to do a TV show. Duhamel is frequently quite watchable as the titular lead player, and has some meaty dramatic scenes to sink his teeth into (notably Danny's return from military service in Iraq) but is charming enough to pull off the comedy scenes. James Lesure as Danny's pal Mike (an MIT engineer who worked as a hotel valet because he earned more money that way and then was forced to take a pay cut when Big Ed needed him to work in security) is a techno-wizard but in a cool way. He doesn’t have a lot of funny moments, but plays off of Danny and Ed well. Although the women as individuals may have serious storylines, a lot of the stuff that they do individually and together has a comedic aspect to it.

Las Vegas will probably never win any major awards, but on the whole it is an attractive, well-made, and funny series that uses the frequent absurdity of the title city most effectively. It certainly doesn't belong on any list of guilty pleasures. Best of all, the producers, having decided that the show needed an Elvis Presley song as the title music, resisted the temptation to use "Viva Las Vegas" and went instead for "A Little Less Conversation". What's not to love about that?

No comments: