Viva Las Vegas

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Shooting a scene for CSI

When conservative pundit and moral scold William Bennett was found, in 2003, to have lost millions of dollars gambling in Las Vegas and elsewhere, the reaction in some quarters was, Hypocrite! How could the author of The Book of Virtues be an honorary citizen of the city of vice and still speak for American values?

Bennett, it turns out, was ahead of his time. On TV — that barometer of the nation's morals and lack thereof — Las Vegas is on a roll. In 2000, CSI established the city as the place to be stylishly murdered. But in the past year, it has been joined by shows from Las Vegas on NBC to the reality dating show Single in Vegas on WE: Women's Entertainment to Celebrity Poker Showdown on Bravo and two summer reality shows, Fox's The Casino and Discovery's American Casino. And there's more to come in the fall.

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The superficial attraction of Sin City for TV is obvious — sin. "People go there with a certain desire to let go of their inhibitions," says Jack Orman, an executive producer of CBS's forthcoming Dr. Vegas, with Rob Lowe (The West Wing) as a playboy casino doctor. "That generally leads to trouble, which leads to dramatic situations." But for all the sex and show girls, a closer look at the programs reveals Bennettian contradictions: libido and law, hedonism and moralism, revelry and regret. They let the audience, vicariously, be bad and get spanked for it too.

Las Vegas knows all about balancing naughty and nice. In the '90s it tried to become a cleaned-up destination for families. But last year it decided to embrace its old-time illicit allure — and the free-spending adults that attracts — with an ad campaign touting the slogan "What happens here stays here." The city's rebirth as a racy entertainment locale couldn't have been better timed. "CSI really helped Las Vegas get on the map as an attractive town," says Las Vegas journalist Lonn Friend. "It's photographed in a really erotic way. The underlying ethos of this town is erotica."

And the casinos, once publicity shy, now understand the value of TV. According to CSI creator (and lifelong Vegas resident) Anthony Zuiker, the turning point came not with his show but in 2002 when MTV's The Real World taped a season in Vegas and drew an enthusiastic young audience. "Before that," he says, "there were a lot of problems when we were trying to shoot in Vegas. The executives at the casinos were afraid to show dead bodies." (Partly for budgetary reasons, the scripted Vegas series still shoot mostly in L.A.) Now even cartoonists are rolling the dice: this fall NBC launches Father of the Pride, a computer-animated series from the makers of Shrek, about a family of lions in Siegfried & Roy's Mirage Resort revue. (Fortunately for NBC, it was, ahem, a tiger that severely mauled Roy Horn last fall.)

Few people embody both eras of the city better than James Caan, who exudes old-Vegas raffishness like Old Spice and used to hang out with the kind of less-than-reputable locals he describes in terms like "I know he's not a shoe salesman, but I don't know of any violent crime he committed." Today on Las Vegas — one of the few new series to click with viewers last fall — the former Godfather gangster plays the head of security at a top-flight casino. The show's tone is hardly dark. The Elvis theme song--"A little less conversation/A little more action"--aptly captures its cheerfully vacant spirit ("I don't know what kind of drama awards we're gonna win," Caan says dryly). But old Vegas or new Vegas, says Caan, the town is an endless source of tales: "You can write a story about a king one week and a pimp the next."

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