If TV shows are movies now, then give Dylan McDermott an Oscar for “LA to Vegas.” OK, OK. Maybe that’s a little extreme. Even actual movies can’t win film’s most prestigious honor if they’re funny, so Mr. McDermott will have to settle for a Golden Globe — but it’ll be for film, dammit, since that’s clearly so much more important that television.
Overall, Fox’s new half-hour comedy set in the friendly skies between the City of Angels and the City of Sin shows signs of turbulence. Coming up with a season’s, let alone seasons’ worth of fresh material all set within a small, flying cylinder seems about as difficult as making Jerry Seinfeld’s airplane observations topical again. Even in its first three episodes, the series strains to integrate some of its cast members into the narrative — how many excuses can there be for a UCLA economics professor to fly to Las Vegas? — and the scripts are still finding their rhythm.
But dammit, McDermott and his game flight crew are fun to watch. If “LA to Vegas” can trim the fat and find its storytelling sweet spot, there’s no doubt this cast could keep us laughing for years to come.
As Captain Dave, a passenger airline pilot who’s the cock of the cockpit and a very sad man anywhere else, McDermott isn’t even the star of the show. That title belongs to Kim Matula, who plays a flight attendant sick of doing the same 45-minute flight over and over again. In the pilot, Ronnie has just interviewed for a promotion to the New York route, much to the chagrin of her best friend and co-worker Bernard (Nathan Lee Graham), who thinks they’re already on the most exciting flight available.
Beyond how great it is to see a female lead introduced with higher priorities than meeting a man, the two actors have great chemistry, as do two of the flight’s semi-permanent passengers played by Peter Stormare — as Artem, a gambling junkie — and Olivia Macklin as Nicole, a stripper who’s definitely not going to “trap” you and sell you into prostitution.
These five (including Captain Dave) represent the parts that work best about “LA to Vegas”: They’re a zany, surprising, and instantly likable group, just strange enough to steal a few laughs out of sheer astonishment but not so out there you start questioning their authenticity. Anyone who’s been to Vegas should recognize the cast as their fellow Strip crawlers and blackjack players.
When “LA to Vegas” embraces the madness inherent to this group, their lifestyle, and the anything-can-happen mentality of Las Vegas itself, the show hums with an invigorating energy. Bernard brings the zingers, Ronnie isn’t afraid to be the crazy one, and their passengers are always ready with a quick curveball or two. Such pleasant idiosyncrasies help hide a few early patches of rough air. There’s a little too much air between some of the jokes; the initial love story needs an immediate overhaul, if not an outright (travel) ban, and the aforementioned professor (played by “Mindy Project” veteran Ed Weeks) is far too much of a straight man to fit in on this flight.
But then there’s McDermott. An underrated comedic actor for some time now — anyone unfortunate enough to sit through “The Campaign” at least got an early tip-off to how sharply funny McDermott can be when he goes dark — the former star of “The Practice” is clearly having a ball as a pilot hiding his insecurities with overconfidence. Imagine Captain Dave as Tom Cruise’s character from “American Made,” Barry Seal, except instead of quitting his boring day job to go fly missions for the CIA, he stuck around and had to invent a world where he’s god just to keep things interesting. He’s like a middle-aged Maverick who quenches his need for speed with vanity photo shoots and hits of emergency oxygen.
But if you look past the false front, which isn’t hard to do, it’s easy to see how unsatisfied Dave really is: “Good afternoon, everyone. This is your captain — and friend,” Dave seductively croons into the microphone, effectively cluing the world in that he doesn’t have any real friends. All he’s got is the uniform on his back, one of the world’s rare good-lookin’ mustaches, and his esteemed status as a pilot.
So he milks it for all its worth. Captain Dave’s transparently false confidence could be a detriment in the hands of a lesser actor, but McDermott makes sure Dave believes what he’s saying and doing is true. He is a great pilot, so it’s fine that he drinks and/or gets high before flying. He is a prize in the dating pool, so it’s OK that he’s still secretly reeling from his divorce. He is the most interesting guy in the skies, so it’s cool that he doesn’t have much of a life on the ground. Moreover, it’s fine with the audience that these traits are a bit formulaic because McDermott is having so much fun filling in the rest.
It’s unclear if that will be enough to sustain a series in need of some tweaks, but there’s more than enough here to justify watching. Who knows? Maybe “LA to Vegas” should’ve been a funny little 90-minute movie. But then that would be the end of Captain Dave, and who wants to put a cap on their time with a performance this good? TV allows for growth and enjoyment for years to come. Let’s see what series creator Lon Zimmet (who’s worked on “Happy Endings” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) has planned. Even if “LA to Vegas” crashes and burns, we’ll always have McDermott. The Oscars could only hope to be so lucky.
“LA to Vegas” premieres Tuesday, Jan. 2 at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.