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Las Vegas: Season One
The Montecito Hotel and Casino is the ultimate Las Vegas destination. Showcasing world-class gaming, big-name fights, star-studded concerts, and the occasional movie shoot or cheerleading competition, the Montecito plays host to whatever its guests desire. Ed Deline (James Caan) is the head of security and surveillance (or he's President of Operations depending on the episode's plot), and nothing escapes his watchful gaze. With the help of his stunningly attractive staff, he protects the casino from defrauders, caters to the needs of high rollers, and turns champagne wishes and caviar dreams into reality.
In a television landscape so often dominated by serious cops, doctors, and lawyers (and now "reality"), "fun" shows are becoming fewer and farther between. Don't get me wrong, I love well-crafted dramatic programming, but sometimes I want something a little more adventurous and light-hearted. Las Vegas is just such a show. Boasting an impressive cast of some well-known stars mixed with a few fresh faces, Las Vegas is a fast-paced, slick, and attractive television series that rarely takes itself too seriously and never fails to entertain.
The structure of the show is simple: anything can, and often does, happen in a Las Vegas casino. Because of the wide array of activities and interests catered to by casinos and the unique "sin city" approach to it all, setting a television series inside such a location provides a virtual smorgasbord of story ideas. With that foundation in place, Las Vegas develops storylines around just about every aspect of the casino's daily operation. Danny McCoy (Josh Duhamel) is Deline's right-hand man, and while his job responsibilities vary depending on the episode, he's essentially in charge of security. Mary Connell (Nikki Cox) is the Special Events Coordinator in addition to being Danny's "girl next door" childhood friend. Also on staff are Sam Marquez (Vanessa Marcil) as a high profile casino host, Nessa Holt (Marsha Thomason) as the "Ice Queen" pit boss, and Mike Cannon (James Lesure), a superstar jack-of-all-trades valet with a masters degree in engineering and a flare for being an expert in whatever the plot desires. Even Deline's daughter Delinda (Molly Sims) finds work at the casino as manager of their stylish nightclub.
Presented in a relatively stand-alone episodic format, each "hour" focuses on two or three plots that weave together in a way to keep everyone from the ensemble cast involved. More often than not these stories are entertaining, but the way certain cast members are involved is sometimes forced. For example, Nessa is sometimes a dealer/pit boss, and other times she's just wandering around the casino apparently with nothing to do. Also, as mentioned before, Mike is an expert in everything. It's easy to buy that he's an engineer who's chosen a career as a valet because of the good pay, flexible hours, and interesting lifestyle; but the stories often stretch believability making him an expert in software, electronics, surveillance, poker, eating contests, and why not ... forensics. Fortunately for the show, Lesure is a very talented actor, and the style with which he wears all these different hats makes it easy to forgive the silliness of it all. In fact, stylishly stretching believability is a running theme with this series. The writing is often pretty sloppy, but the style with which it's presented and the talent of the actors involved make the whole thing work in spite of its flaws.
It would not be unreasonable to suggest that Las Vegas has the most attractive cast on all of television, so it's refreshing to see that they're not just a bunch of pretty faces, but they also carry their characters very well. James Caan is already an established star, and he's perfectly cast as the ex-CIA boss with a menacing exterior but a good heart softened by his wife and daughter, but it's the strength of the rest of the cast that holds the show together. As narrator of the first few episodes and a central figure in most of the plots, Duhamel is the closest thing to being the "star" of the show, and he carries it well. He is very likeable and confident, and yet there's a vulnerability to him that is very effective. The four beautiful ladies are also very effective, and throughout the season, each one of them is given at least one episode to showcase their talents. Perhaps the biggest surprise to me was how strong Molly Sims is as Deline's daughter. Known really for being a model and having very little acting experience, she was originally supposed to just be a recurring character, but her performance in the pilot was so good that she was written in as a major character. On the commentaries, Thompson talks about how difficult it was to cast her character, and it's a good thing they spent so much time and effort on the task, because the series benefits greatly from her participation. She captures the essence of the worldly rich kid who has traveled the globe and experienced the best education money can buy, but there is also a warmth to her, both in the way she interacts with her father and the way she treats the guests of the casino. In fact, all of the female characters (with the exception of Mary) exhibit similar traits. On the outside, they could easily be judged as cold and insensitive, but in reality, they're all very caring people, and it helps underscore the positive and light-hearted nature of the show.
Adding to this light-hearted style is the way it approaches the episodic stories of the casino guests. Clearly inspired by late 70s favorites Fantasy Island and The Love Boat, guests of the Montecito often arrive with a dream or a personal problem, and the staff is always willing to help mend their relationship or make a Vegas fantasy come true. While there are some heavier plots about murder or robberies, the heart of the show is always with these lighter stories and the good-natured way the staff genuinely tries to help the guests. At times, it can feel a little forced, and you can almost see Isaak behind the bar and Tattoo alerting the boss of a plane's approach, but for the most part, these plots are pleasant and entertaining.
A quality that sets Las Vegas apart from most shows on the air is the sheer volume of celebrity guest stars, something that is perfectly in keeping with the Vegas image. After the initial few episodes, nearly every subsequent one contains at least one pretty sizeable celebrity guest: Wayne Newton, Penn & Teller, Sugar Shane Mosley, Brooks & Dunn, Paul Anka, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Little Richard to name a few. In addition to celebrities appearing as themselves, they have been able to cast some great guest stars. Cheryl Ladd shows up periodically as Deline's lovely wife, Harry Groener plays "Gunther" the head chef at the Montecito's primary restaurant, and the writers have created great guest starring roles for Elliot Gould, Mimi Rogers, Alec Baldwin, Dennis Hopper, Sean Astin, and Jon Lovitz among others. Much like the city, the show is a star-studded affair, and it seems like there's a waiting list for celebrities to get on the show. Fortunately, none of these characters is gratuitous. The roles are actually pretty juicy, and instead of parading some celebrity on screen to get ratings, the producers effectively use them within the stories. A particularly great guest appearance comes in the episode "Pros and Cons" where Vincent Ventresca and Paul Ben-Victor are reunited in a hilarious turn as lifelong buddies who return to the Montecito once a year in a special tradition. It's one of my favorite parts of the entire series, and it is so great to see them together once again.
Another area where the show tries to set itself apart from others is with some slick special effects. Named the "woosh", Las Vegas makes liberal use of a technique where the camera appears to quickly move through hallways, elevator shafts, and electronic equipment to immediately transition from one scene to another. Sometimes it's a bit gratuitous, but most of the time it's really effective and brings a unique style to the show that you don't see anywhere else. Surprisingly, though, with all the effort they put into these effects, some of the set design is really sloppy. It's a large project, and they do a good job in many areas, but the exterior shots of the nonexistent Montecito are rarely believable, and some of the interiors (rooms, corridors, etc) can appear woefully underfurnished. I suspect much of this is due to budget concerns, especially if they're paying for those guest stars and some of the popular music they use, and it's not a huge drawback by any means, just something I found annoying while watching the show.
Overall, Las Vegas is a very well done show for what it is. No, it's not going to win any awards for excellence in drama, but it is great fun and is really quite entertaining. It's also proving to be very successful, and after this season aired, networks were already trying to copy the formula. Fox came out with North Shore, a shamelessly obvious clone that copied the beautiful people aspect well but was lacking in just about every other area, and NBC also tried to capitalize on the formula again with L.A.X., a series that certainly isn't bad, but the magic just isn't there. Las Vegas has shown itself to be one of the few "fun" shows on the air with some staying power. It's often beautiful to look at, can sometimes be dramatically moving and inspiring, and is almost always entertaining. With 23 episodes in this first season, that's quite a bit of entertainment. Here's a summary of what's included on the set:
- 1.01 - Pilot (09.22.03)
- Commentary by Series Creator/Executive Producer Gary Scott Thompson and Actors James Lesure, Nikki Cox, Molly Sims, and Marsha Thomason
- 1.02 - What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas (09.29.03)
- 1.03 - Donny, We Hardly Knew Ye (10.06.03)
- 1.04 - Jokers and Fools (10.13.03)
- Bonus: "Rumble in the Montecito"
- 1.05 - Groundhog Summer (10.20.03)
- 1.06 - Semper Spy (11.03.03)
- 1.07 - Pros and Cons (11.10.03)
- 1.08 - Luck Be a Lady (11.17.03)
- 1.09 - Year of the Tiger (12.01.03)
- 1.10 - Decks and Violence (12.15.03)
- 1.11 - Blood and Sand (01.05.04)
- 1.12 - Hellraisers and Heartbreakers (01.12.04)
- Commentary by Series Creator/Executive Producer Gary Scott Thompson and Actor James Caan
- 1.13 - The Night the Lights Went Out in Vegas (01.26.04)
- Commentary by Series Creator/Executive Producer Gary Scott Thompson and Actor Vanessa Marcil
- 1.14 - Things That Go Jump in the Night (02.02.04)
- 1.15 - Die Fast, Die Furious (02.09.04)
- 1.16 - New Orleans (02.16.04)
- 1.17 - You Can't Take It with You (03.01.04)
- 1.18 - Nevada State (03.15.04)
- 1.19 - Sons and Lovers (03.22.04)
- 1.20 - The Strange Life of Bob (04.19.04)
- 1.21 - Family Jewels (04.26.04)
- 1.22 - The Big Bang (05.10.04)
- 1.23 - Always Faithful (05.17.04)
- Commentary by Series Creator/Executive Producer Gary Scott Thompson and Actor John Duhamel
- Featurette: "Inside the Montecito" (8:43)
- Featurette: "Las Vegas: The Big Gamble" (21:35)
- AFL on NBC Schedule
- AFL Match Up - See Who's Playing
- "LAS VEGAS The TV Show" (0:30)
- "City of Las Vegas Promotional Spot" (1:30)
Las Vegas is presented in anamorphic widescreen across 3 double-sided discs, and for the most part, this release is a pretty big disappointment. For starters, the menus are terrible. Not only are they in a 4:3 aspect ratio that looks awkward and boxy, they are also simplistic and uninspired. On top of that, the resolution for the graphics is low, and it looks a bit unprofessional when blown up to large sizes. However, these are just menus, and what's important is the content of the show, so let's move on to that.
The video quality for these episodes is surprisingly bad. Having watched most of them in high definition when they originally aired, I was really impressed with the vibrant colors and visual beauty of the show. This DVD release captures almost none of that. Comparing against the standard definition DirecTV feeds I recorded from the original broadcasts, these episodes arrive on DVD much darker and with far less color definition. To be fair, some of the episodes don't look all that bad, but enough of them do that I had an immediately negative reaction to owning this set on DVD. It's certainly better than you'd get from an older release, but for a show that's currently on the air, and one that features such a vibrant style, it's a real disappointment.
In addition to issues with color, there is some significant edge enhancement. Typically when writing a review for a recent television release, I have to pay close attention to the video to spot the flaws, but with Las Vegas, they're so apparent as to be distracting. Now, I've often believed that Vanessa Marcil is an angel sent from Heaven above, but surrounding her in a haloed glow of white is a bit much (example to the right).
The audio is presented in 5.1, and it sounds just fine. There aren't too many points in the series where the added surround is necessary, but in those instances, it works well. The overhead passing of an airplane in the pilot episode sounds great, and there is a good scene in the sports book where two characters are talking in the foreground, and you can hear the light play-by-play of a football game in the right surround channel. There's really nothing special about the audio, but there's nothing wrong with it either.
The packaging is very simple. The three discs are contained within a 4-panel sheet that folds onto itself and slides into an embossed slip case. The whole package is about an inch thick and represents a nice small footprint on the shelf.
Of note, there are a number of previews at the beginning of the first disc, but thankfully they are easily bypassed, and there's a notice before they begin informing the viewer of such.
Uncut & Uncensored! That's how this set is being promoted, and as expected, it's shamelessly misleading. First off, I'm not even sure what "uncut" means, since clearly the show has been cut to various constraints, but moving past the semantics of the phrase, the extra material is mostly insignificant. For example, in the episode "New Orleans", the wet t-shirt contest runs about 10 seconds longer than the original broadcast. Comparing against the aired version, there isn't much of a difference in the content that is shown other than the fact that it runs a little longer on the DVD (i.e. you don't see anything more, just more of it). There are other scenes here and there that run a tad longer, and in scenes with strippers, the DVD contains slightly longer shots of the sides of their breasts, but it's really nothing to write home about. And no ... there is no addition material from the opening scene between Delinda and Danny.
Worst of all is that this release is most certainly "cut" ... or at least changed, and not for the better. The opening titles for all 23 episodes of this first season have been replaced with the title sequence from the second season. It's not a huge difference, as much of the material is similar, but it's still a jarring change for those of us familiar with the show. The great shot of Nikki Cox from the pilot has been replaced, and Marsha Thomason appears with her second season haircut. It's an annoying change and one that seems completely unnecessary. And now for the really bad news: on all the episodes except for the pilot, the title track "A Little Less Conversation" has been replaced with the track that is used in international markets. While I assume this choice was made to reduce costs, it is a decidedly darker sounding track that completely lacks the upbeat energy of the remixed Elvis tune, and it really doesn't match the tone of the series at all. This recent trend of releasing DVDs in a lesser form than their original broadcast is a very disturbing one in my opinion, and I was not happy to see it manifested on this set. As you can tell from the Content section of this review, I really enjoyed this show both when it aired and watching it again for review, so it makes it all the more disappointing that there are so many negative issues with the way it has been released on DVD.
WHISTLES & BELLS:
Accompanying the episodes are 4 audio commentary tracks, and they are all moderately interesting in their own ways. I really like the choices of the episodes chosen for commentary, and I like how each of the stars is present on an episode that is particularly important to their characters. Unfortunately, there are more cast members than episodes, and so the commentary for the pilot features too many stars and is a bit jumbled. While it's a pretty interesting listen, I would have liked to hear from some of these actors individually. Each of the commentaries features the Creator and Executive Producer for the show Gary Scott Thompson, and he leads most of the discussion. He does a pretty good job describing various aspects of the casting and direction of the series, and I found his comments to be pretty entertaining. He does come across a bit full of himself constantly talking about how amazing the "woosh" effect is, but for the most part, they make for a good listen.
The two best tracks are on "Hellraisers and Heartbreakers" with James Caan and "The Night the Lights Went Out in Vegas" with Vanessa Marcil. Caan comes across as a pretty likeable guy, and he and Thompson have some good interaction between the two of them. "The Night the Lights Went Out in Vegas" is a great episode for Marcil's character, and she really has a lot of material to sink her teeth into. Hearing her talk about her performance in that episode is very entertaining. The 4th commentary track on the season finale is moderately interesting, but Josh Duhamel offers very little to the track, and a lot of it is repeated information that we have already heard from Thompson.
On the final disc are two fairly interesting featurettes. The first is "Inside the Montecito", and it is a behind the scenes look at the soundstage and some of the various sets. The piece is hosted by some of the actors from the show as well as Thompson, and it's a fun look at how the set is designed. Unfortunately, it doesn't give any insight into any of the other aspects of the production.
"Las Vegas: The Big Gamble" is a 20-minute piece chronicling the history of the city of Las Vegas. Unlike many similar pieces you'll find on television, it's not a promotion enticing you to visit the city, and only in the last couple of minutes do they talk about anything "modern". Narrated by Josh Mankiewicz, this featurette talks about how the city came into existence, from the rail station that first put it on the map to the entrepreneurs who made it what it is today. While I was already familiar with the information presented here, it was still worthy of attention, and people who don't know much about the city will probably find it interesting.
Save a couple of promotional pieces, which are barely worthy of mention, the rest of the "bonus features" are devoted to the AFL. That's right ... the Arena Football League. Sure ... why not. On the first disc is a short piece with two high-profile AFL co-owners, John Elway and Jon Bon Jovi, intended to promote Arena Bowl XIX in Las Vegas. This piece is set against the backdrop of the Montecito and features some of the stars of the show. While it sounds like a terribly stupid idea, it's actually quite humorous, and I really enjoyed watching it. However, what is a terribly stupid idea is including the upcoming AFL television schedule as a bonus feature. I can handle a clever short film to utilize a cross-promotional opportunity, but putting the schedule on the DVDs is taking it too far.
The first season of Las Vegas is great fun. The location of Las Vegas is the perfect source of exciting stories, and the cast are both attractive to look at and entertaining in their portrayal of the staff of the Montecito Hotel and Resort. The back of the box reads "slick, fast-paced, and sexy!" and I will not argue with that assessment. Exciting and fun, Las Vegas is a good diversion from the overly dramatic shows that often dominate prime time television. Sadly, for all the strengths of this series, the DVD release is a pretty sizeable disappointment, and I am very tempted to mark this title as a Rent It. However, it is very entertaining and the cast is so likeable that I feel I would be doing a disservice to new viewers if I didn't Recommend you give this show a look.
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