Vegas: Cowboys vs. Gangsters in New Sky Drama

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By Alfred Joyner | February 15, 2013 12:59 AM EST

Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis star in new Sky drama Vegas. (CBS)

Las Vegas: the entertainment capital of the world. An intoxicating oasis of casinos, restaurants and hotels makes Sin City a true gambler's paradise. But it was not always this way. A pop-up town in the heart of the desolate Nevada desert, Vegas was once part of a barren American frontier romanticised throughout the first half of the 20th century in Hollywood Westerns starring the likes of Gary Cooper and John Wayne.

This is the setting for Vegas, the latest TV show to start on Sky Atlantic. The series is a period drama set during the 1960s when the east coast gangsters moved onto the old cowboys' turf for their slice of the new lucrative casino business, and based on the true story of cowboy Sheriff Ralph Lamb's efforts to tackle the mob in Clark County.

Nicholas Pileggi

Scripted by Nicholas Pileggi, the writer most famous for penning Martin Scorsese's bravura mob saga Goodfellas, the show in a similar way chronicles an important period of transition in the mafia. Already familiar with the history of Las Vegas from his work on writing Scorsese's Casino, Pileggi went on to write a full novel charting the history of the gambling venues in the 70s and 80s.

Vegas turns the clock back another ten years right to the dawn of the casinos being built in the desert, with the gangsters from New York and Chicago all opening up ventures to exploit the state's failure to clamp down on illegal gambling. Pileggi told The Independent, "One of the reasons I was fascinated by this period is because 1960s Las Vegas begins the journey of that city".

Star-studded cast

The glossy neon surroundings are illuminated by a star-studded cast of acting veterans. Dennis Quaid, who previously featured in westerns The Long Riders and Wyatt Earp, plays cantankerous sheriff Ralph Lamb. Initially concerned with protecting his ranch from the developing urban sprawl of the city, he finds himself in charge of investigating the shady dealings of the prosperous casinos after the old sheriff is killed.

He faces off against Michael Chiklis as Italian mobster Michael Savino. The actor has played corrupt figures before, most notably Detective Vic Mackey in police procedural The Shield, but here gets to play the Savoy Hotel manager trying to organise his illegal operation whilst under the watchful eye of Lamb.

Added to the mix is Carrie-Anne Moss, most memorable for her role as hacker/martial artist Trinity in The Matrix trilogy, playing the city's DA Katherine O'Connell, a lawyer trying to impose order on an increasingly lawless town.

The real Sheriff Lamb

Part-Deadwood, part-Boardwalk Empire, the series is based on witnessing the fascinating showdown between these two genre archetypes in the strikingly glamorous period setting. The standard format of the show sees Sheriff Lamb investigating week-by-week the murderous aspects of the mafia, and it is here the show is also heavily influenced by another Las Vegas-set show, CSI.

The real-life Sheriff Lamb noted that he often felt he was the sole man standing up to the mob. "The government looked at the gambling as a bad situation, and it took a long time before they realized we did have control over it," he said in an interview with Parade Magazine. To reign in the mobsters, Lamb would go on to form the first Las Vegas SWAT team and a modern crime lab, both signs that he realised the need to keep up with the times to compete with the mafia.

But it is through watching Lamb's old-fashioned methods to crime solving, using his fists just as often as his brain, that will appeal most to viewers. The first episode begins with a disgruntled Lamb taking down three people single-handedly in a fist fight, before later chasing down a motorcycle gang on horseback. His no-nonsense approach comes into direct conflict with not only the Casino owners, but with the mayor of Las Vegas (Michael O'Neill), who realises the importance of casino investment to the future prosperity of the town. This fascinating duel between Lamb and the mob, and the juxtaposition between decadent Vegas and desolate Nevada, mean that this latest crime drama might just hit the jackpot.

Vegas begins on 14 February on Sky Atlantic HD

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