Here’s the deal: The Player knows what viewers want. And what viewers want in this high-concept Las Vegas-set drama about a ring of wealthy people who wager on crimes bets are massive amounts of the following: heartpounding car chases, bonkers fight scenes, and Wesley Snipes. (Oh, and Philip Winchester running through the streets in only his boxers.) It also holds a couple of less action-thriller-y cards up its sleeve, including a revenge plot, a juicy mysterious backstory, and, yes, lots and lots of gambling puns. The question is: Are you all in?
Okay, enough with said gambling puns. That’s Wesley Snipes’ job — and speaking of Snipes, he’s very disappointed when The Player begins. “Who’s next?” he says as he looks down at a dead body, right before the show cuts to its (inevitable) rock-and-roll montage of Sin City. Staying in one of the decadent hotels on the Strip is Mr. Raqiv (Carlo Rota), who’s a… high-ranking official? A major businessman? Whatever he is, the show skates over his background — all you need to know is that he needs to be protected, and he’s the High Stakes Plot of the Week. The guy’s got protection from several parties, including the Las Vegas Police Department, his private security team, and our hero: Alex Kane (Winchester), a former FBI operative who, according to LVPD Detective Cal Brown (Damon Gupton), is “Vegas’ biggest pain-in-the-ass security consultant.”
Luckily for Raqiv’s family, Vegas’ biggest pain-in-the-ass security consultant has located all of the vulnerable spots in his hotel suite, so that when a would-be assassin arrives, Alex races across the roof of the hotel, grasps a rope, and smashes through a window, saving Raqiv just in time by using a bottle of wine to knock the trespasser out. Instead of thanking Alex for saving his life, Raqiv isn’t pleased with the loss of a nearly 100-year-old wine. (Because in Vegas, having booze is more important than staying alive.)
Alex’s personal life is less, well, life-threatening. He and his ex-wife Ginny (Cara Buono), a doctor who just returned from a stint in Tunisia, share a carefree, modern relationship. They’re friends with benefits, and she still wears her wedding ring, if only to cover the tattoo she has on the finger. Most of all, she’s his conscience, telling him that all he needs to be good is to “do good.” That’s easier said than done, especially once it all goes wrong: An assassin hunting Alex kills poor, good-hearted Ginny instead, leaving Alex pained (and shirtless) as he races outside to capture her killer. A car driven by a blonde woman who knows his name (!) crashes into him, and by the time he wakes up in the hospital, all evidence of him chasing a killer and getting hit by a car has been erased, so Alex becomes the primary suspect in Ginny’s killing. He escapes by inadvertently hiding in the blonde woman’s car. (Because in Vegas, a hit-and-run can plausibly turn into a larger conspiracy.)
After a quick, expository car chase in which we learn her name (Cassandra, played by Charity Wakefield), Alex’s terrorist-hunting background, and who she works for (an organization bigger than the MI6! And the NSA!), they get cornered by a helicopter. But as soon as the LVPD identifies her license plate, she snaps her fingers, and the law enforcement backs away. That’s when she finally brings Alex to Snipes’ no-longer-disappointed “Mr. Johnson” (that can’t be his real name, right?), who reveals a boatload (casino-load?) of information about what’s really going on. First, there’s a ring of “extremely wealthy individuals” who use data analysis to predict crime. They then bet on whether a crime can be stopped.
That’s where Alex comes in. Cassandra tells Alex the ring is betting on whether he can save Raqiv’s daughter from being kidnapped. Alex doesn’t fold: He plays, so he races off with Cassandra’s tech skills as his only resource. At the hotel, he initiates a shootout (and then impales one of the kidnappers on a roulette table) until the man who killed Ginny takes Raqiv’s daughter away. Alex failed the mission, but gave the gambling ring a great show.
Which is why Cassandra leaves him a calling card for where he can find her and Mr. Johnson again. Alex arrives at the House, where Mr. Johnson rattles off even more info: Mr. Johnson is the pit boss, Cassandra is the dealer, and the two of them coordinate with the anonymous members of the ring to bet on crimes. Alex is understandably weary of the setup. “You gamble with people’s lives,” he says, realizing that with all their Minority Report-like technology, they could have saved Ginny. Mr. Johnson uses the power of his chokehold and gambling puns to stop Alex: “Fold, Mr. Kane. You don’t have a strong enough hand.”
As angry as Alex is, he continues playing. He figures out that Raqiv’s security chief is a mole and forces the man to call the team holding Raqiv’s daughter hostage. Using her eye-in-the-sky tech abilities (or something like that), Cassandra helps Alex triangulate the call. To pinpoint an exact location, Alex goes low-tech: He talks to “a guy” he knows who tracks empty lots people use for nefarious purposes. (Because in Vegas… you know what? Never mind.) When Alex arrives, he takes a dirtbike from a group of racers just happening to be nearby, and crashes into the building. Dodging a hail of bullets, he drives up an escalator (?!), and then launches himself onto a van and shoots the man holding Raqiv’s daughter to set her free.
As the action winds down, Alex reviews his past when Brown pulls his FBI file. He says he wasn’t a good guy — working for the FBI task force led him to believe that shooting first mattered more than figuring out if the person he aimed at was guilty. Before Brown can toss him into prison, Mr. Johnson arrives. He uses a jolly attitude and footage of Alex the night of Ginny’s murder to exonerate him, claiming he had gotten the tape from a hotel’s security camera. Brown’s suspicious, but he can’t do anything about it.
Alex, however, can. Mr. Johnson and Cassandra offer him a job, to become the titular Player in the ring, because the rich have to be kept entertained or they’ll act out, and Alex just happens to have caught their attention. Though Alex at first refuses to do it, he dives back in when he discovers that Ginny’s corpse isn’t Ginny’s. (It’s missing a tattoo on her ring finger.) With no other options, Alex heads back to the House and goes all in (sorry). Mr. Johnson walks him through the rules — that Cassandra will be his only resource, that the game must never be revealed, that it’s a lifetime appointment until the show gets canceled — but it’s Alex who lays down the law once Mr. Johnson leaves. He approaches Cassandra and presents a thinly veiled threat about the people who killed Ginny: “They’ll be sorry. Whoever they are.”
Cassandra, who’s been inscrutable up until now, starts to look fearful when Alex walks away. In the closing scene, she delves into files on Ginny gathered from Alex’s laptop earlier in the episode and stares at a photo of her and Ginny together (!?!). “Place your bets,” she says, before snapping her fingers and walking away.
Why did she do that? What does she know about Ginny’s murder? Is Cassandra the real pit boss? The Player is counting on you being invested in those questions to want more. So far, it’s a slick, energetic pilot for a show that’s not exactly original. (TV has always been obsessed with stopping crimes before they happen. And with Las Vegas.) But the Snipes-Winchester-Wakefield trio works so far (though Snipes seems to be phoning it in), and if every High Stakes Plot of the Week involves actual high stakes, then the show could find a solid footing in the TV landscape. It won’t blow anyone’s minds, but then again, isn’t mindless entertainment the whole point of Vegas? That alone gives The Player pretty good odds of surviving for at least a few more episodes — even if I won’t place my bets just yet. Will you?
The Player airs on Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.