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Television

Scandal! Excess! Sexy lady robots! Whether it’s social commentary or a satirical free-for-all, every TV show does a Vegas episode

Almost every show that’s been on the air for more than two seasons winds up with a Las Vegas episode. Find some pretext to pack up the cast, dump them into a car or on a plane, point them toward Sin City and let the hijinks ensue!

The dramatic possibilities inherent in gambling losses or wins/unplanned weddings/alcohol-induced amnesia do seem irresistible to any writer mired in the season-three narrative doldrums. Vegas-based stories are also deployed to distract from stars-on-leave or provide the momentum for a spin-off. (“Will & Grace” sent the cast to Sin City during Debra Messing’s maternity leave; “Designing Women” took a private jet there to distract from the absence of Delta Burke.) But sometimes a “Vegas” episode is a little misleading. Often it’s just a soundstage in Burbank with some craps tables — “Friends” did two and a half Las Vegas episodes without setting foot in Nevada. Not that going on-location assures the maximum glamorous city experience: For “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour,” the trip to Sin City did involve footage from the Sands, but spent most of its time meandering around a faux-desert with Fred MacMurray. Here are eight television episodes that actually made something of the myth of Las Vegas.

 

The Twilight Zone

“The Fever,” Season 1, Episode 17

Original airdate: January 29, 1960

This episode was inspired by Rod Serling’s own Vegas vacation: He decided to celebrate the successful first season on his new television show with a weekend in Sin City and found himself uncomfortably enchanted by the slot machines. Here, a woman wins a trip to Las Vegas from a commercial promotion — much to the chagrin of her husband, who is violently opposed to gambling. But when a stranger tosses hubby a coin and tells him to drop it in a slot machine, he does so … and is done for.

[HEAR MORE: Vegas reality TV show “Bad Ink” features — what else? — awful tattoos. Hear an interview on "KNPR’s State of Nevada."]

Everett Sloane had played important supporting roles in “Citizen Kane” and “The Asphalt Jungle” and he makes the gambler’s compulsion believable: Pouring sweat, cranking the one-armed bandit for five hours at a stretch, babbling, “This machine mocks me, it teases, it beckons. Put in five, pay out four. Put in six, it pays out five …” His wife begs him to return to the room, but he refuses. He finally collapses and is hauled away, the gray-suited men pulling his wriggling arms, his feet scuffing across patterned carpet. Even when he’s back in his comped mini-suite, he hears it calling his name, spinning its cherries at him in the hotel room mirror, blinking its lights threateningly. “The Fever” wasn’t shot on location, but its visceral manifestation of one of the malevolent spirits of Las Vegas makes it fiercely accurate nonetheless.

 

Alfred Hitchcock Presents

“The Man from the South,”
Season 5, Episode 15

Original airdate: January 3, 1960

You had me at “Starring Steve McQueen. Guest Star, Peter Lorre.” “The Man from the South” is actually a short story by Roald Dahl that has been filmed a number of times (including a Quentin Tarantino adaptation). This first rendition remains the best, largely due to McQueen in all of his youthful, dashing glory as a small-time gambler and the veteran character Lorre in portly ’n’ sinister Sidney Greenstreet mode as the man with an irresistible proposition ...

It opens with a penniless McQueen lounging around the bar, chatting up a pert dancer — played by his then-wife, Nelie Adams. Lorre strolls up, all Continental charm and gentlemen’s wagers. “I’ve always liked the informality of Vegas and you meet such interesting people,” he says, which is how Steve McQueen winds up betting his little finger against a convertible in a gorgeous mid-century suite at 8 a.m. It’s largely a character piece, Lorre’s antsy noir trickster and McQueen’s laconic ’60s hustler meeting over room-service drinks and assorted vices, along with one last memorable character adding a final twist. Still, who has not wanted to send a bellboy out for “some nails, a hammer, a length of good, strong cord and a chopping knife”?

 

Bionic Woman

“Fembots in Las Vegas,”
Season 3, Episodes 3-4

Original airdate: September 24, 1977

Well, it certainly is a great title. This is Jamie Somers’ second run-in with the dreaded fembots and there is one believable thing about it: Las Vegas would be the best place to hide a sexy lady robot army. The android lovelies in shimmery pantyhose and feathered hair pop up everywhere, constantly challenging our heroine — fembots are cigarette girls, cocktail waitresses, showgirls. Fembots are never housekeeping.

We do get an amusing taste of “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” tourist gusto; Jamie’s normally uptight boss Oscar Goldman begins letting loose like he’s Oscar Goodman, picking her up at the airport in a Cadillac boat, hooting, “Welcome to Las Vegas! I love convertibles!” But, hey, why not? How many guys get to take the Bionic Woman to the Casino de Paris show at the Dunes?

There’s a lot of detailed ’70s Fremont Street shots, as our heroine sashays from casino to casino in a wardrobe of culottes and big floppy hats, hot on the trail of mechanized showgirls. Naturally, this leads to some headdress-toppling, cyborg backstage catfights. Then, of course, it’s off to the mad scientist’s secret lair somewhere in the desert — because the mad scientist’s lair in the desert is almost as much of a Vegas cliché as the surprise wedding or big win.

 

Charlie’s Angels

“Angels in Vegas,”
Season 3, Episode 1-2

Original airdate: September 13, 1978

This is probably the gold standard of Las Vegas episodes: A two-part mini-movie starring Dean Martin with Scatman Crothers as Martin’s buddy/good luck charm and Dick Sargent as a bad-tempered lounge singer. There’s even special Vegas-only credits with Jaclyn Smith high-kicking in the Folies Bergere and Cheryl Ladd in a speedboat on Lake Mead, along with classic footage of gaming tables and neon signs. Martin plays the owner of the Tropicana — back when you could win a casino in a craps game — who is, naturally, a good friend of Charlie’s and, naturally, needs the Angels to come investigate some suspicious doings at his casino.

Kelly gets a gig as a showgirl and pretends to be a gold-digger on the make, while Chris winds up as a backup singer (she can actually sing, too: Cheryl Ladd was Melody’s voice on Josie and the Pussycats) with a full load of faux-naïveté. Both strategies provide fine cover for asking who owes who money or why that guy gets so upset whenever you mention his wife. Martin falls for “accountant” Sabrina — for those who recall her as the brain between two bombshells, it’s interesting to note that she was usually the one who motivated the romantic subplots. Also, for those who remember this as a bikini show, it’s weird to be reminded that these ladies wore more pantsuits in one episode than Hillary Clinton does in an entire administration.

 

The Simpsons

“Viva Ned Flanders,”
Season 10, Episode 10

Original airdate: January 10, 1999

Things start with a bang, specifically the implosion of Springfield’s Montgomery Burns Casino. Soon after Homer sees Ned Flanders getting a special price at the car wash (“How come Churchy LaFemme gets a discount?!”), he tells everyone that Ned is lying to get senior citizen rates, only to find out that Ned Flanders is indeed 60 years old — his youthful appearance the result of a boring, predictable existence. When Flanders realizes that his fun-free lifestyle inspires not awe at his virtue, but pity at his dullness, he decides to change his ways.

Ned finds the most-live-for-the-moment guy he knows and begs Homer, “Will you teach me the secret of your intoxicating lust for life?” Naturally, this leads to a Vegas road trip. The two cruise a cartoon Strip — “Okla-Homo!” at the Rivera, “Klon-Dykes” at the Snowshoe — before winding up at “Nero’s Palace.” Homer idly gambles away all their money as Ned prays for guidance to a surveillance camera, which intones, “Keep … gambling.” Things go south when the cocktail goddesses bring Ned a “White! Wine! Spritzer!” and we cut to a destroyed suite, golf cart crashed into the rotating bed. Ned shudders awake, fully clothed, in a jacuzzi and looks at Homer, saying, “I have a pounding headache, my mouth tastes like vomit and I don’t remember a thing!” “Welcome to my world,” responds Homer wearily.

Then, of course, in walk cocktail waitresses Ginger and Amber — who are now Mrs. Ned Flanders and Mrs. Homer Simpson. There’s a trip to the buffet and an attempt to ditch out, thwarted by the Moody Blues, Siegfried and Roy and the rest of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce: “Las Vegas doesn’t care for out-of-towners! Take your money and go someplace else!” If it all sounds a bit like The Hangover — down to the Mike Tyson (erm, Drederick Tatum) cameo — well, it does. With a fast pace, plenty of weird ersatz celebrity moments and references to Ralph Steadman and the Rat Pack, this is another strong contender for Best. Vegas. Episode. Ever, as Comic Book Guy would say.

 

X-Files

“Three of a Kind,”
Season 6, Episode 20

Original airdate: May 2, 1999

Again using the “one of our leads is missing! If we go to Vegas, no one will notice!” ploy, this episode is marked by the absence of Agent Mulder. This episode focuses on the troika of nerds known as the Lone Gunmen, who are in town trying to infiltrate the DefCon Convention — here that’s short for “defense contractor,” but wise geeks know that’s what they call the real-life Vegas hacker convention. Our heroes have also found “a place where a naked chick will teach you to shoot a machine gun.” Most of the action takes place at the Monte Carlo and there are a lot of location shots — your standard wide sweep of the gaming floor into a high-stakes Texas  Hold ’Em game, as well as a trip to the Clark County morgue.

The Lone Gunmen attempt to infiltrate a presentation on some new secret weapon and bumble into blowing their own cover. Then a mysterious hypodermic shot causes one of their comrades to throw himself under the bus — literally. Is it a covert government mind-control weapon at work? But of course! After a Dungeons & Dragons game (apparently the nerd equivalent of a wake) they lure Agent Scully to Vegas. It doesn’t take long for her to get the enigmatic hypodermic and turn into a chain-smoking, ass-grabbing flirt holding court at a casino lounge, surrounded by besotted bureaucrats. (Still in her severe agent drag, which is too bad — what better use could there be for our tax dollars than to get Dana Scully a Versace?) “Why would the government want to turn Scully into a bimbo?” the Lone Gunmen wonder. Several personality reversals, a few more secret weapons and a faked death later, they find out ...

 

The Sopranos

“Kennedy and Heidi,”
Season 6, Episode 18

Original airdate: May 13, 2007

The asbestos disposal is becoming a hassle, Junior is screwing up again, Tony and Christopher are riding around the dark north Jersey roads talking about some other bullshit and — major car accident! And Tony kills Christopher — who was seriously damaged, both physically and drug-test-wise, but it was more a murder of opportunity than a mercy killing. Tony keeps trying to convince himself and everyone around him that his nephew’s death is not a tragedy, but no one else seems to buy in. So, Tony decides he needs “some peace and quiet, chill out” and heads for Las Vegas.

In a scene curiously reminiscent of the show’s Jersey Turnpike opening, Tony cruises through the airport tunnel, past the Excalibur and down the Strip, sunlit hotel marquees blazing up alongside him. Soon he’s striding across the crystal casino at Caesars Palace, winning at roulette, eating a steak dinner. But Tony Soprano has never been much of a man for solitude, and he looks up a stripper friend of Christopher’s: Again, Tony wants to mention his death to everyone, but doesn’t want to discuss it. By way of avoidance, there’s booze and sex and, finally, peyote.

At close, a tripping Tony is sitting out in the desert, looking out on the valley, waiting for the sun to rise. Suddenly, he springs to his feet and shouts, “I GET IT!” But what does he get? It’s one of The Sopranos’ most cryptic final moments, only three episodes before the final one. “Kennedy and Heidi” also earned The Sopranos its only directing Emmy. Yes, I know.

 

Family Guy

“The Road to Las Vegas,”
Season 11, Episode 21

Original airdate: May 19, 2013

“The Road to …” episodes of “Family Guy” are always among viewer favorites, distilling the show down to the drunken dog, the angry baby and some delightful musical numbers. It’s surprising that it took so long for the Vegas episode to happen, though Stewie once daydreamed a trip to Vegas that goes from high-roller to slot loser, ending with a strangled showgirl and a bus to anywhere out of town, all set to Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September.”

In this episode, some confusion between Stewie’s teleportation machine and his time machine leads to two pairs of boy and dog on the loose in Sin City. Both keep nearly crossing paths, but are on entirely different trajectories: One pair wins “enough money to pay that Carrot Top impersonator to beat up that Rita Rudner impersonator,” the other pair has nothing but bad luck. Eventually their paths cross, with some confusion about loan sharks knowing who’s who — “Tacky?! Sir, I’ll have you know I bought this suit in the lobby of a casino!” — and whether the backpack contains a juice box and crackers or ten grand. It’s not clear which casino the duos have landed in, but it does seem to be strongly reminiscent of the Bellagio, though the opportunity for a Chihuly joke is missed. (Yes, “Family Guy” left an obscure reference unturned.) 


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