Movies and TV shows regularly get Vegas completely wrong. That’s a good thing
IN THE FIRST EPISODE of the short-lived, justifiably forgotten 2015 Las Vegas-set NBC series The Player, protagonist Alex Kane chases an assailant down a very recognizable Fremont Street, showing off the production’s Las Vegas location shoot. But in the very next scene, he describes the pursuit as occurring … on the Strip?
In the allegedly factual 2008 gambling drama 21, one of the main locations is the very recognizable Red Rock Resort — presented as if it’s right on Las Vegas Boulevard. In the opening scene of the 2009 indie dramedy Saint John of Las Vegas (which premiered at the CineVegas film festival), Steve Buscemi’s title character is shown walking into a Las Vegas convenience store and buying a bunch of lottery tickets. And Las Vegas doctors in movies and TV shows don’t work at hospitals; they work in casinos, as on the one-season 2004 CBS series Dr. Vegas, or for organized crime, as on the current Fox series The Cleaning Lady.
More recently, 2021’s Pooling to Paradise spends its entire running time with its characters focused on their road trip from Los Angeles to “Paradise, Nevada,” projecting this is as some kind of idyllic town on the outskirts of Las Vegas, rather than a designation for a chunk of unincorporated Clark County that happens to encompass most of the Strip.
The list of onscreen inaccuracies is practically never-ending, and it’s easy for us as Las Vegas residents to roll our eyes and dismiss the creators of these movies and shows as clueless. Whether you’ve lived in Las Vegas for a few months or for your entire life, it’s a nice feeling to possess some sort of exclusive knowledge, a level of superiority over the filmmakers and viewers who blindly accept this distorted vision of Las Vegas. We get to sit with our local friends, pointing and laughing at all the ways that films and TV series get Vegas wrong.
And while it’s certainly wrong, it’s importantly, usefully — vitally — wrong. Think about it like this: To most people who don’t live here, those films and TV series form their idea of what Las Vegas is. We can get a sense of Vegas mythmaking in real time from watching even the most inaccurate depictions of our city — and then, ideally, leverage those insights to more effectively attract tourists or possibly make Vegas a more enjoyable place to live.
How many people who moved to Vegas as adults were first enticed by the city because of something they saw onscreen, something that made Vegas seem like a mystical place where dreams come true? Wouldn’t it be nice to find that mysticism intact upon arriving? There isn’t a showgirl living in every apartment complex, but wouldn’t it be cool if there were?
From its earliest days, Las Vegas has been built on myths and rumors and impossible dreams. Mobsters came here to escape the attention of the authorities on the East Coast, and then were fictionalized and glamorized in movies. The oft-repeated line that Vegas was better when it was run by the mob comes as much from the movies as it does from any actual experience — and the mob-run Vegas of the movies is a better Vegas than the actual mob-run Vegas ever was.
That goes for other aspects of Vegas as well. It’s not just that the Vegas of movies and TV series is bigger, crazier, glitzier, and splashier, but that it’s a place where people who want to live in Vegas would want to live. Sure, you might get killed by mobsters or abducted by aliens, but you’re also likely to strike it rich, meet the person of your dreams, have the most amazing night of your life, and possibly achieve full transcendence, all while hanging out with showgirls and Elvises.
For tourists even more so than for new residents, Las Vegas is a place of escape, and there’s value in replicating some of the onscreen version in the real world. The lavish room at Caesars Palace where the characters stay in The Hangover was created on a soundstage, but when the movie became a hit and potential guests began asking to stay in the “Hangover suite,” Caesars management was smart to seize the opportunity and adopt the movie’s branding for its luxury accommodations. (Given how often Vegas is still represented onscreen by showgirls, someone should immediately revive the mostly defunct classic Vegas showgirl production show.)
We can’t (and wouldn’t want to) merge Fremont Street with Las Vegas Boulevard or move the Red Rock Resort to the Strip, but we can do our best to remember what’s enticing about Vegas to people outside our city (and what misconceptions might turn them away). Everyone should get the chance to channel George Clooney walking into the Bellagio in Ocean’s Eleven, high on the possibilities that Vegas offers, feeling cool and suave and invincible. In our reality, that casino isn’t actually connected to two others via an underground vault, and it isn’t actually owned by a single greedy mogul. But for a Vegas built on alternate realities, the cinematic legend may be more valuable than the mundane truth.