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Television & Radio | TELEVISION REVIEW

Taking the casino pulse

September 24, 2004|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

"Dr. Vegas," which premieres tonight on CBS, finds the resilient Rob Lowe (late of the late "The Lyon's Den") donning a stethoscope to run an in-house clinic atop a swank Las Vegas hotel. It's a lightweight drama of an old-fashioned, sentimental sort, with just enough life-threatening situations and minor ethical conundrums to persuade the tired viewer that something kinda, sorta substantial is happening, and enough medical and gambling-world jargon to suggest "reality."

But it's too invested in happy endings to be true to life, and it's no deeper than your TV screen. If Vegas itself were this predictable, there would need to be an investigation.

It's a show that wants to be liked. Even hotel general manager Joe Pantoliano and casino factotum Tom Sizemore are fairly cuddly, a word not heretofore associated with either actor. Despite Pantoliano's colorful descriptions of what he'll do to various parts of Lowe's anatomy if he lets his "hypocritic oath" -- that joke must be as old as Hippocrates -- and other inconvenient scruples get in the way of the bottom line, by the hour's end all will be smiles and affection.

Blackjack dealer Sarah Lancaster radiates farm-freshness, even when the story line requires her to don the tight, semi-revealing dress of a cocktail waitress, and she is sweet and empathetic; it's clear she'd like everyone at her table to win. They're so lovable, these four, they could be played by Muppets.

Although the series is loosely based on a real doctor, who really had a real office at the real Caesars Palace -- which is not to say the real Caesar's palace -- it is a perfect example of the sort of mix-and-match high concept that makes studio heads look up from their tuna tartare and take notice: "It's 'ER' in a casino!" ("He's a cowboy on a submarine!" "She's a plumber on Mars!")

And Vegas rings bells: It's enjoying an extended season in the sun, as witness not only "Las Vegas" (Pantoliano's current hairpiece strikes me as an homage to James Caan, his opposite number on that show) and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," but also the animated "Father of the Pride," plus a rash of televised poker and sundry reality shows ("The Casino," the upcoming "The Club"). Whether the world needed another series set there, even one with a doctor in it, was a question quite possibly not asked, since the public appears to still be in a buying mood.

It's difficult to argue against the drama inherent in the city, sitting unnaturally in the Nevada desert, built for trouble, ordinary and special. In the course of the two episodes available for preview, Lowe's Dr. Billy Grant gets a singer (drug-addicted, pregnant, with a heart condition) into rehab, deals with card counters and chip stealers, treats a construction worker who has a nail in his heart, saves the life of a man who has jumped from a window, saves the life of a Girl Gone Too Wild, saves the life of a prizefighter by punching him in the face (it's complicated), all without breathing hard, while still finding time to lose money on football and cards and to spar with Pantoliano and Sizemore as well as with Amy Adams, his nurse practitioner.

Adams is apparently not long for the show but would be sensible Scully to his disorganized Mulder if she were.

Lowe, who will surely be first on the list when they cast "The George Hamilton Story," is an amiable if not exceptionally versatile actor, and at 40 still pretty, in a slightly strained way. His good doctor, we are meant to understand, is a man whose smile and wisecracks mask deep pain. There are vague hints of past troubles: a suspended medical license, a daughter living elsewhere, a gambling problem.

Yet deep down he is just kindly Dr. Welby, or Dr. Kildare, or Dr. Hawkeye Pierce, who was also soft and squishy beneath a spiky exterior. Perhaps to underline his loneliness, or his loner-liness, the producers have refrained from throwing hot women at him, notwithstanding that more than once he must unbutton a blouse in the course of his work.

At the end of the day, he's a righteous, stand-up, do-right guy -- he buttons those blouses right back up -- only as dark and complicated as the basically wholesome, essentially upbeat tenor of the show will allow. When sweeps come along, if he is still around to greet them, Dr. Grant will doubtless face some Very Special Moment of Truth, though nothing that can't be tidied up in an hour. Until then, he'll fix the sick, repair the wounded and correct the hapless, whether they like it or not.

*

'Dr. Vegas'

Where: CBS

When: 10 tonight

Rating: TV-14, L (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14, strong language)

Rob Lowe...Dr. Billy Grant

Joe Pantoliano...Tommy Danko

Tom Sizemore...Vic Moore

Sarah Lancaster...Veronica Harold

Executive producers Jack Orman, Steve Pearlman, Lawrence Bender, Kevin Brown, Mark Sennett. Director David Nutter.

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