CC TV: Period Incorrect – CBS’s “Vegas” Gets Its Cars Wrong

I’ve been watching the new CBS series “Vegas” (not to be confused with NBC’s dreadful “Las Vegas” from the 2000s, or the late-1970s ABC private-eye show Vega$). The premise is very loosely based on the life of Ralph Lamb, a rancher who became sheriff in 1960 and remained in the position for nearly two decades. It has some merit, but unfortunately, the choice of cars is also too loosely based on reality.

I was drawn in initially by the show’s pedigree, with Nicholas Pileggi, the author of the books on which GoodFellas and Casino are based (and co-writer with Martin Scorsese of those films’ screenplays) as its co-creator. Pileggi’s involvement probably helped to lure Dennis Quaid to accept his first regular TV series role as Lamb, and Michael Chiklis of The Shield to come on board as mobster Vincent Savino.Jason O’Mara (star of the American version of Life On Mars) and Carrie-Anne Moss (probably best known as Trinity from the Matrix trilogy, here an amusing contrast in 1960s clothes and hair) are other appealing reasons to watch.

The idea of Quaid and Chiklis’s characters as adversaries made me interested enough to sample Vegas, along with the setting at the beginning of the Mad Men era. To its credit the show looks terrific, but unfortunately it’s turning out to have the familiar feel of many other cop shows: a fairly ordinary case of the week intertwined with longer story arcs involving Savino’s ambitions to become a legitimate businessman, and the conflicts this causes with his bosses back in Chicago.

But my biggest gripe with the show isn’t with the storytelling, but with the props, specifically the cars and trucks being used. It’s been made clear to viewers that these initial episodes are taking place in 1960, but most of the vehicles that have appeared so far are newer. 1961 models like Savino’s Lincoln Continental could kind of be excused, depending on the specific point in the calendar year the show is in.

But there have been plenty of 1962 and 1963 models (the Ford police cars, the assistant DA’s ’63 Thunderbird) and even a few ’64s and ’65s running around in the background. Even the sheriff’s Dodge pickup truck is at least two or three years too new.

Speaking of Mad Men, both Don’s 1962 Cadillac and Betty’s 1962 Mercury station wagon have made appearances, indicating the producers are using the same vintage car supplier. Now, most people wouldn’t notice this, and fewer would care. The reason it jumps out to me as a glaring error is because, for the American car companies, 1960 was a crucial turning point in the evolution of automobile design. The designs of the 1950s grew increasingly gaudy and outlandish with each passing year, but by 1959 the stylists finally realized that they had pushed the excess too far.

The designs of 1960 models generally represented a fresh application of restraint that would lead to a decade of style high points before once again swinging back to excess during the 1970s. With that in mind, the show’s use of newer cars results in the atmosphere looking confused. There should still be plenty of older 1950s cars on view and in regular use, and there are some, but not enough; the choice of using so many post-1960 cars makes it look like the show is set in the middle of the 1960s instead of the beginning. If you’re trying to establish the mood of a certain place and time, such details make a difference. Matthew Weiner (the creator of Mad Men) certainly knows this, but it seems like the producers of Vegas aren’t as interested in being as true as possible to their show’s setting, and this ends up detracting and distracting from the rest of what’s on screen.