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Fall TV preview: Of two new CBS crime dramas, one stands out

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Once more, with feeling: The new season is upon us, so it's time to start looking at the pilots that made it to series at the broadcast networks. I'm always excited to see the new line-ups at the start of the fall, even though I know that pilots can be a mixed bag. Good starts can end up feeling like wasted time when the show goes to series, while mediocre introductions sometimes yield tremendous programs in the long run. My intent this year is to stay on top of all the shows that I review in this space during the next few weeks; I'm planning midseason re-reviews around the sixth episode of each. That way, I'll have a chance to see if the storylines and characters have developed, or if the show is merely marking time (or worse, wasting away).

As I promised last week, I'm taking a look at a pair of new CBS procedural dramas (as if there are any other kind at the so-called Eye Network), the Tuesday night entry "Vegas" and Thursday night's "Elementary."

Both shows benefit from recognizable names in their casts (Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis top-line the 60s-set cops-versus-mobsters "Vegas," while Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu lead the Sherlock Holmes-in-21st century New York City "Elementary"), good lead-ins (the "NCIS"-"NCIS:LA" double-header for "Vegas," one of last season's top new shows "Person of Interest" for "Elementary"), and the fact that they fit rather cleanly into the CBS hour-long mode (investigators looking at dead bodies, solving the cases and fitting in a few thrown punches or quick gun battles along the way).

But while "Vegas" is a handsomely-mounted attempt at a period piece-slash-procedural thriller, it didn't click for me the way that the much more simply put-together "Elementary" did.

"Vegas" (not "Vega$," so as not to be confused with Aaron Spelling's Robert Urich-led detective series that ran on ABC in the late 70s) is based, in part, on the life of Ralph Lamb (played by Quaid), a two-fisted rancher who became the sheriff of Las Vegas in 1960. After a young woman's murdered body is found at an atomic testing site outside of the city, the Las Vegas mayor -- an old friend and former Army commanding officer of Lamb's -- deputizes him (along with his brother, Jack, played by Jason O'Mara, and son, Dixon, played by Taylor Handley) to track down the killer. Why? Because he's seen Lamb solve puzzling murders before, and he doesn't trust his own sheriff to do the job.

Meanwhile, a mob boss named Vincent Savino (played by Chiklis) has come to town to set the house in order at the Savoy Casino. Savino's on the ground for what seems like only a few minutes before he's neck-deep in the situation; the young woman -- who happened to be the governor's niece -- was also on staff in the Savoy's credit department. Ignoring that, he's got other problems: Henchmen who strike first and ask questions later, croupiers stealing chips off tables, even improper casino floor decor.

The two halves of the show feel a bit unequal -- much more time seems to be dedicated to Lamb solving the murder (and the killer is so incredibly obvious that he's practically wearing a neon-painted "I DID IT" sign around his neck when he's interviewed) than to the clash of cultures between the Las Vegas that was and the Las Vegas that was to come. There's quite a bit that works here, I admit; Quaid is good as the rancher with one foot in the past, Chiklis -- while rather underused in the pilot -- is believable as a man whose cool demeanor hides a capacity for brutality, and there are some good supporting players, particularly O'Mara. But a lot of the potential of the show frankly dissolves as scene after scene of detectives' huddles and interrogations play out in their normal, same-ol'-thing way. I hope that the series will start getting more adventurous in its storytelling as the weeks go on, because the seeds of a very challenging and interesting show are there. But if there's one thing you learn from watching CBS' procedurals, it's that there's nothing more important than sticking to the (admittedly successful) formula. Pilot only: Two and a half stars (out of four).

The nasty word "formulaic" could also have been attributed to "Elementary," but thanks to a pair of great performances and a terrific script, this reimagining of Sherlock Holmes rose above the typical and -- much to my surprise -- became one of my favorite pilots of the season.

Yes, the legendary British detective -- one of the sturdiest characters in entertainment -- has been brought to life in another incarnation. This time, instead of doing the feature film's steam-punk man-of-action variant or the BBC's modern-day reworking of the classic stories, Holmes (played by Miller) has been transplanted to America, specifically the Big Apple, to work as an unpaid (and therefore, in his words, "unbiased") consultant for the NYPD.

When we first meet him, we are following his newly assigned "sober companion," Joan Watson (Liu, in the show's other big twist -- changing the gender of Holmes' sidekick) to the apartment Holmes has been occupying. He just escaped the drug rehab facility where he'd been placed ("I was bored," the wired detective says when she asks him why he did it, which feels like a good explanation for why he started using drugs in the beginning, or really, for why he does anything), and now he's spending his time indulging in bizarre sexual proclivities and guessing the next treacly speech on a soap opera he wasn't really watching.

Almost as soon as Watson is in the room, he's whisking her away to a crime scene. A psychiatrist's wife has vanished, and while the cops -- led by a refreshingly appreciative Captain Gregson (played by Aidan Quinn) -- believe it was a kidnapping, Holmes senses foul play. (A major clue: a missing box from the living room. "Kidnappers don't take trophies," Holmes says. "Killers do.")

It doesn't take long for Holmes to deduce from the scene that the kidnapping was staged to cover up a homicide, and that the body was hidden in a panic room just off the bedroom. Then, as the investigation turns into a hunt for the perpetrator, and Watson finds that she has her own gifts as a detective -- and that Holmes, while a genius at a crime scene, is a near-disaster socially. He has a remarkably short attention span, has the speech patterns of a Tommy Gun and can't seem to help asking the wrong question at the wrong time.

We also learn about Watson -- true to the history of the character, she's a doctor (a former surgeon, in fact), but she's given that up to be a live-in guardian for addicts, even though she's never used drugs herself. She turns out to be rather insightful and quick-witted, too; a good match for the lonely Holmes.

"Elementary" has been done before, certainly; while watching the show, I was reminded of Tony Shalhoub's early years as Adrian Monk on the long-running USA series "Monk." Like that program, its the character work that makes this one better than most of its peers. Miller's live-wire performance as Holmes comes across like a distillation of Robert Downey, Jr.'s hyperactive movie character, with a hint of the petulance of the gifted that Benedict Cumberbatch brings to the BBC version -- and yet feels completely honest, fresh and new. Liu is equally good; this might be some of the best work of her career.

While the mystery in the first episode is more than serviceable, the killer and his motives genuinely despicable, and the solving of the case satisfying, what struck me about it most was that the characters -- who could have been dull or standard-issue or taken too far over the edge -- have been opened up and given room to breathe and live and be real, and that's what makes "Elementary" truly special. This is one of the best and most entertaining surprises of the season, and I'm looking forward to seeing where this show goes. Pilot only: Four stars.

"Vegas" airs Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. on CBS.

"Elementary" airs Thursday nights at 9 p.m. on CBS.

Content advisory: Both "Vegas" and "Elementary" carried TV-14 ratings for their pilots; since both are crime dramas, it's not a stretch to think that will be the case most weeks. "Vegas" had several scenes of violence, including fistfights and gunplay, plus several shots of a dead woman's body. "Elementary" opened with fleeting glimpses of an assault on a woman, plus the disturbing image of her dead body. There was also a mention, but nothing explicitly shown, of Holmes' romantic (?) life.

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Good evaluation of both programs. I enjoyed both even at 80 years old. Al Mitchell

-- Posted by almitchell on Thu, Oct 4, 2012, at 3:46 PM

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