Last Night's Viewing: Vegas, Sky Atlantic
Britain's Secret Shoppers, Channel 4
So, you like cowboys and you're mad for the Mafia. Why take two bottles into the shower, though? Get Vegas, the wash'n'go solution to all your cowboy/mobster needs – a crime drama that, as its creator, Nicholas Pileggi, puts it in the elevator pitch, might reasonably be summarised as "John Wayne versus Edward G Robinson".
Set in Sixties Las Vegas, when the town was just beginning to take off as America's capital of sin, it delights in the friction between old and new, an antagonism highlighted in the very first frames. A group of cowboys are rounding up cattle in the Nevada scrubland when there's a rising roar and the herd is spooked by a low-flying turbo-prop. On the plane is Vincent Savino, arriving for a little light torture and casino management. Underneath it, spitting blood at the scattering of his livestock, is Ralph Lamb, a local rancher who takes a dim view of the way the neighbourhood is changing. Lamb is played by Dennis Quaid, mouth almost permanently fixed into that sphincter of fury that is one of his trademarks as an actor.
Vincent is initially impressed by Lamb's ability both to give and take a punch, but after a dead woman is found in the desert and Lamb is drafted by the mayor to solve the crime, he begins to find Lamb's persistence aggravating. For Vincent, Vegas is all in the future, a potentially limitless source of cash liberated by air-conditioning, neon and improving airline networks. For Lamb, though, Vegas is still the past, a frontier town where law enforcement is still more posse than procedure. And just in case we don't get it, that first confrontation between modernity and America's mythic past is underlined by two more. At one point, Lamb vaults into the saddle to chase down a Hells Angel on his motorcycle and at the climax of the opening episode you get a classic Western shootout with a twist: one party is wearing a stetson and staring through narrowed eyes at his opponent, the other is wearing a suit and barrelling down the blacktop in a Cadillac. No prizes for guessing who wins.
Pileggi's own crime record – as the screenwriter on GoodFellas and Casino – promises rather more than is actually delivered here. Vegas shows none of the fascination with backroom process that was a feature of both those films, opting instead for the unconvincingly pliable reality of a standard American cop show. When Lamb discovers a tell-tale blood stain in Vincent's casino, days after the murdered woman is found, it somehow appears to be still wet. And when he's coshed unconscious by the killer, he's left with nothing worse than a rueful expression on waking. There's a bit of Mad Men glamour (and potential love interest for Lamb) in the hourglass form of Carrie-Anne Moss, who plays an Assistant DA, and Michael Chiklis goes through the motions as the lethally mercurial Vincent. But you're likely to end up thinking wistfully of De Niro and Joe Pesci, and of the series this might have been.
A more humdrum kind of High Noon stand-off featured in Britain's Secret Shoppers, a new series that promises to empower British consumers. Wearing the black hat, a car salesman, all fancy sales patter and free car mats. Wearing the white hat, a widow looking for a little runabout. Black hat thinks white hat is easy meat but she's been trained by Justin Preston, the series presenter, who feeds encouragement into her ear as she gives the salesman a very bad day at the office. Always fun to watch this kind of thing, but I suspect that most viewers are canny enough as buyers to realise that the promised "insider tips" on getting a bargain are not quite as advertised. "Buy women's fragrance in the January sales for Mother's Day" ran one of them. Don't tell too many people, will you?
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