Film Review

THE MICHAEL MANN FILES: VEGA$ (1978-1981)

While Miami Vice was the small-screen project that first raised serious awareness of Michael Mann to the millions of television viewers who likely missed Thief and The Keep when they enjoyed their brief theatrical runs, his first big break occurred as the credited creator of Vega$, the ABC television series that ran a respectable three seasons between 1978 and 1981. Co-executive produced by Aaron Spelling, Vega$ chronicles the exploits of Dan Tanna (Robert Urich), Las Vegas private investigator who solves cases brought in by walk-in clients while also working on retainer for Philip “Slick” Roth (Tony Curtis), fictional owner of a battery of casinos including the the then-very real Desert Inn (and, in the earliest episodes, the similarly then-very real Maxim).

Vega$ exists in a netherworld between Michael Mann’s penchant for realistic detail and Aaron Spelling’s jet-puffed, blow-dried nothingness that was baked into most of television ventures, which also means it’s also a show that is mostly at odds with itself. One can imagine some great material coming from the central idea of a Vegas private eye who is on retainer for a Sheldon Adelson-type who mixes with the seedy world that lives under the glitz and glamor of the Vegas strip. Yes, this is definitely a Michael Mann movie for 2021 or beyond. But for 1978, hookers have perfectly feathered hair and roller rink lip gloss, drug deals happen in broad daylight in the parking lot of the Desert Inn, and sex trafficking is conducted by Cesar Romero with Moses Gunn as his backup. This is definitely Aaron Spelling territory.

To extract any value out ofVega$, it’s important to look at its complete arc as a television program; one that had to burn precious clock time fumbling around with its formula before finally hitting its stride at the moment it was too late. In the beginning, Vega$ was just a destination show. It would be something that looked like a downmarket Hawaii Five-0, a programmer that would build a viewership mostly due to the curiosity and excitement generated by its exotic, titular location, then in its final throes as an “adults only” hot spot. For those folks who wanted to go to Las Vegas but didn’t have the money, the time, didn’t want to drag their whole-ass families to the nightmarish Circus Circus only to be around a bunch of similarly miserable parents and their screaming brats, or just didn’t want to be around anyone other than who was in their living room, Vega$ took audiences up and down the Vegas Strip and into the casinos as they were in 1978-1981 at no charge except for what was reflected in the audience’s electric bill.

In its early episodes throughout the first season, Dan Tanna conducts a schedule that never seems to include meals, sleep, or, surprisingly, romantic relationships of any kind. Almost perpetually on the go, Tanna is oftentimes pulling into his crashpad (the Desert Inn’s theatrical warehouse) just long enough for Beatrice (Phyllis Davis) or Angie (Judy Landers), his female assistants and sometime-Vegas showgirls, to cram a sandwich (that he won’t finish) into his mouth and give him some new information, causing him to jump directly back into his car and hightail it to another destination. Sometimes, he’ll enlist the services of his connection at the LVPD, Sgt. Bella Archer (Naomi Stevens), ex-wise guy flunky Binzer (Bart Braverman), or his old Vietnam buddies, Harlan Twoleaf (Will Sampson) and Mitch Costigan (Chick Vennera). Oftentimes, Tanna will be forced to mix with hokey guest stars who are doing little outside playing themselves (and, in a couple of cases, quite literally playing themselves). The mix of multiple characters, silly plot diversions, and lackluster stories makes the whole of the first season both uneven and under baked, only distinguished by its commitment to its locale.

The second season, now crediting producers both in L.A. and Las Vegas, stabilizes the show a bit by cementing its episodic structure and streamlining its cast. Angie disappears without a whisper, Beatrice becomes Tanna’s only Girl Friday, and Binzer emerges as his lovable, and primary, second banana. Greg Morris’s Lt. David Nelson materializes as Tanna’s sole connection inside the police department as Sgt. Archer vanishes without comment. Harlan Twoleaf reappears in a couple of episodes before exiting and Philip Roth, too, eventually takes a powder. Appearing in one episode of the second season and a couple of episodes in season three, Roth becomes a globetrotting jet-setter who is always out of town but keeps in constant communication with Tanna and company. In settling the cast and getting into a regular rhythm in the second season, the show is forced to adopt another sheen of artificiality as it replaces Tanna’s pull car with phony-looking back projection, allowing for more freedom for the night sequences. Season two also doesn’t know what to do with Binzer half the time but generally keeps him locked down as the bumbling comic relief, most embarrassingly in an episode where he wears roller skates throughout to address the then red-hot energy crisis.

Strikingly, Vega$ begins to find its way in its third season when the dramatic stakes seem to be higher and the subject matter gets a little more lurid. Where it wasn’t atypical for season one Dan Tanna to be running bullshit errands like finding a missing lion or untangling a scam Red Buttons is running on the slots (both found in the overstuffed and creepy Mann-scripted pilot episode), season three Dan Tanna gets hit with double heartbreak after discovering his girlfriend is a top-shelf call girl only to see her killed for her efforts when she tries to quit the business. In fact, some of the material in season three becomes JUST gritty enough to where, if he were so inclined, Michael Mann could construct a contemporary feature out the recycled plots of two and a half episodes. Porn rings, male prostitution, and Dan Tanna being forced to get hooked on heroin á la French Connection II, shows that some of the third season was serious stuff. In one of the series very best episodes, the megawattage of Wayne Newton is juxtaposed with a pitiful, obsessed impersonator (a fantastic Richard Lynch) who works the dives on the fringes of town, creating a thoughtful and sad portrait of the highs and lows of Las Vegas. That it also functions as one of the weirder entires in the series as Newton had already guested in season two as a washed up race-car driver (involved in a plot that was stone cold stolen from the first French Connection) thereby creating a universe with two Wayne Newtons is also one of the charms of the show. After all, I’m pretty sure Dick Bakalyan plays three different characters throughout five episodes.

The third season also hints at opening up its cast and mixing things up a little. Captain Smith (David Sheiner) rolls up in three episodes in the third season and we get introduced to Victor Buono’s milk-swilling man of leisure, the highly connected Diamond Jim, who lends his services to Tanna in four episodes. Likewise, Louis Jourdan (in a powdered fright wig) gets his very own character arc over the course of two entries. The guest appearances mostly feel less of a variety show nature and more like more real day-players putting in a real day’s work. All of these elements, plus ephemeral details like Dan buying Binzer a new car that actually continues to make appearances in further episodes, blend to suggest that season three was priming the show to really settle into something that might become great before it was cancelled.

Did the show’s darker tone contribute to its demise? Perhaps. Magnum P.I. had taken over the “destination” market a year before and it was a much more digestible blend of exotic locales, light plotting, and colorful characters. By the time it was cancelled, Vega$ felt like the last hurrah of the 70’s. It’s probably no coincidence that Charlie’s Angels, another Aaron Spelling project, was cancelled the same year as Vega$. If you wanted harder nosed cop dramas, Hill Street Blues and Cagney and Lacey debuted the same year Vega$ was dropped. If you wanted some light private eye fluff, Simon & Simon, likewise debuting in 1981, became the audience go to, most especially after being moved to Thursday nights as to follow Magnum.

Despite finally nabbing a Golden Globe nomination for Best Television Series-Drama in its third season and a two consecutive Globe noms for Urich’s performance in seasons two or three, Vega$ really wasn’t a multi-season megahit worth intense scholarship, pop or otherwise. Nor was it really brief enough to be a binge-worthy curiosity. But Vega$ does capture something unique. Its colors and style, most especially the earth tones that make up the wardrobe of Dan Tanna and the splashes of green that appear in the Wimbledon Suites addition to the Desert Inn, evoke a very specific time that was here and then gone in a literal flash. Because recent nostalgia waves have favored the late 60’s and early to mid-70’s as the most desirous of eras to ape, the late 70’s through the very early 80’s only truly exist in the media of the time and Vega$ is special that it was a show the chief purpose of which was to capture its location as contemporarily as possible. So, in retrospect, Vega$ ends up existing as a moving snapshot of a less heralded time (which boils down to the nadir of the Carter years). And beyond the neon and the towering signs that no longer dot the Vegas strip, the half-moon archway-heavy, western architecture of the era has a distinct familiarity for Generation X kids who can still see remnants of that style as it crumbles in the strip malls of their youth that have long gone to seed.

And where is Michael Mann to be found in this mess? While there may not be more disparate work than Vega$ and Straight Time, which both debuted in 1978, you can see the raw material of Mann’s work emerge in both, though it’s completely segregated. In Dan Tanna, there are small traces of the Mann archetype but trying to turn Tanna into some kind of a brooding mope who’s constantly explaining that all he is is all he’s going after or giving one of Mann’s patented “time is luck” monologues while staring off into the desert night would have been verboten in the palace of Spelling. So Robert Urich mostly plays the role with a loose, relaxed charm that sometimes gives way to a harder edge as the show marches toward the end of its run.

Debuting three years after the cancellation of Vega$, Miami Vice became something of that show’s spiritual successor as it took the formula of exploiting its exotic location with massive budgets and hip guest stars. As the third season came to a close, Dan Tanna basically took his fashion-conscious look, his high-dollar car, and his satellite office down to Florida where he gave up shaving and socks to become Sonny Crockett. And while Vega$ retained far less Michael Mann than Straight Time, it is still an important entry on Mann’s resume even if it did nothing but burn his name into the consciousness of American audiences who would get to see it before the beginning of all of its 69 episodes.

1 comment

  1. Enjoyable read, Patrick. I remember watching this show as a kid, even though I was probably too young to appreciate it. I was a TV junkie but shows like CHiPs, Magnum P.I. and Battlestar Galactica were more my style (I was 9 in 1980). I’d love to watch this show again, mostly to see Vegas during that era again. It’s why Diamonds Are Forever is a favourite Bond for me. I had no idea Mann created the show, but the connection with Miami Vice seems clear. The late 70s through the mid-80s was quite the era for Private Investigators and cops on TV.

    Like

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