You don't go to CBS for edgy content. You go to CBS for sturdy, traditional fare that doesn't upend anyone's assumptions or preconceptions about, well, anything ("The Good Wife," of course, is the frisky exception to much of the rest of the network's programming).
With its three new dramas, "Elementary," "Vegas" and "Made in Jersey," the network goes back to the procedural well and tweaks law-and-order formats with varying degrees of success. Let's take the three shows, all of which premiere this week, one by one:
"Vegas," 10 p.m. ET, Tuesday: The big draw of this satisfying period piece -- set in the title location in the early '60s -- is the exceptionally strong cast. Dennis Quaid stars as the ornery Ralph Lamb, a rancher reluctantly drawn into law enforcement thanks to his past as a military police officer; the excellent Jason O'Mara plays Lamb's steady brother; Michael Chiklis plays Vincent Savino, a mobster new to Nevada; and Carrie-Anne Moss is a district attorney whose family has deep ties to the community. There are times in the pilot when Quaid appears a little uncomfortable -- the pace of a weekly TV show is much faster than that of the feature films Quaid is used to -- but those moments scarcely detract from his charismatic presence and generally good work in "Vegas." The look on his face when he sees a dead body tells you all you need to know about why Lamb hates crime work and why he very much wants to find the dead person's killer. Unsurprisingly, Chiklis ("The Shield") is suitably intense and wily, and Moss and O'Mara offer understated but fine supporting work. Still, despite the period setting, this ain't exactly CBS' first rodeo: "Vegas," like most of the network's shows, is all about The Man Who Breaks the Rules to Get Things Done and The Loyal Team That Helps Him. It's hard to escape the conclusion that, week to week, "Vegas" could well be just one of many crime procedurals on a network known for them. Even dressed up in cowboy hats and shiny Mobster suits, won't these characters likely be put through increasingly familiar paces? Much depends on how willing the show is to examine the ambiguity built into the relationship between Savino and Lamb, who need each other in order to keep the peace, for locals and tourists alike. I'll keep watching, given the caliber of the cast and the solidly made pilot, and I'll hope that "Vegas" gives these actors more to do than standing over bodies and leveling shotguns at city slickers.
"Elementary," 10 p.m. ET, Thursday: Jonny Lee Miller is a fine actor, and he does his best to keep up the energy level of this drama, but Miller is not playing Sherlock Holmes, despite the name of his character. The choices, attitudes and actions of this character don't make me think of the incomparable detective whose adventures were chronicled by Arthur Conan Doyle. Miller's "Elementary" character is just an abrasive, impulsive and pretty smart Brit, and these qualities do not a Holmes make; There's much more to the character, but "Elementary" seems quite willing to ignore all that. The British import "Sherlock" is a far, far more pleasing modern-day adaptation, but "Elementary" doesn't just fail because it's not as good as the Benedict Cumberbatch vehicle. The CBS show has a whole host of problems that hobble it: Lucy Lui gives a flavorless, boring performance as Joan Watson. Watson is written as a mere scold and literal babysitter and thus the relationship between the two lead characters -- which must be of interest for the enterprise to work at all -- is not compelling in the least. To shove this venerable duo into CBS' procedural format, the show's producers have managed the unlikely feat of removing almost everything interesting about them. And before you ask, no, I don't care that Watson is female -- that could have been an interesting twist. But the two leads lack any kind of chemistry, platonic or otherwise, and the storytelling lacks the smarts and insight of one of TV's best Sherlockian creations, "House." With all due respect to Miller's performance, I deduce that when it comes to "Elementary," the game is most assuredly not afoot.
"Made in Jersey," 9 p.m. ET, Friday: "Jersey" is the slightest of the three offerings and the one I'm least likely to return to, but I don't mean to dismiss the show entirely -- it's just not my kind of thing. In a premise that recalls the '80s movie "Working Girl," ambitious working-class lawyer Martina Garretti (Janet Montgomery) goes to work at a high-end Manhattan law firm, which is full of uptight, WASPy people who are, naturally, either intrigued by her or disdainful of her accent. But, as the show's press materials assure us, what Martina "lacks in an Ivy League education she more than makes up for with tenacity and blue-collar insight." Ha ha, the joke's on you if you paid a lot of money to go to Harvard or Yale, which secretly deprive graduates of their tenacity! In fairness, the cultural preconceptions in the pilot go both ways (even if the deck is stacked against the Manhattan types): The upper-class people are often presumptuous and condescending (or just a little clueless, in the case Martina's boss, played by Kyle MacLachlan), and Martina's big family, not surprisingly, values carb-laden food, big hair and boisterousness. For all its predictable moments, however, "Made in Jersey" is still more or less watchable, thanks to Montgomery, who is an effortlessly appealing actress. If this show doesn't work, no doubt she'll soon be snapped up by another. She's the main reason to watch the very traditional "Jersey," which should appeal to the audience that is already devoted to CBS' other New York-set Friday drama, "Blue Bloods."
Note: Ryan McGee and I talked about "Elementary," "Made in Jersey" and "Vegas," in a recent Talking TV podcast. Speaking of Fall TV, Ryan and I spoke about the Fox shows "New Girl," "The Mindy Project" and "Ben and Kate" (which I wrote about here and here) in this Talking TV podcast. Another recent podcast of note: New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum and I talk about her Buffy/Tony Soprano Theory of Golden Age Television. Finally, Ryan and I chat about "Call the Midwife," "Homeland" and "Last Resort" -- three of my four favorite drama newcomers -- in this podcast. Check the Talking TV page (and the podcast is also available on iTunes) for additional podcasting goodness.