'Las Vegas' a ratings winner for NBC

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Even a hardened gambler would cringe at these odds: Put a brand-new show up against ABC's "Monday Night Football," then shift it to the dead zone of Friday nights and watch as it loses its core Hollywood star. That's a bad hand, but "Las Vegas" has still managed to bluff its way into becoming one of NBC's most consistent performers. And as it hits its 100th episode, it's even seeing a ratings resurgence, up to 5.1 pre-strike, compared to 4.4 for last year. Jackpot? Not quite -- but close enough.

As to how it all happened, that's a formula creator Gary Scott Thompson (along with fellow executive producers Matt Pyken and Kim Newton) is still puzzling out, though he believes the show's success has as much to do with the wacky allure of Vegas itself.

"We're really a true dramedy," he explains. "A lot of shows say they're dramedies but they aren't. Because even when the worst thing possible is happening, the other story line will be hysterically funny. The idea from the beginning has been that, much like Las Vegas, no matter what happens, the fun always goes on."

Katherine Pope, president of Universal Media Studios, says that "Las Vegas" has "a very tricky tone: sexy and funny and soapy and serious." But what brings fans back week after week is that viewers like spending time in Vegas with these particular characters.

"The goal for the show always was 'fun' and 'wish-fulfillment,' but I think what Gary has done over the years is reinforce the familial aspect -- that these people really do care about each other," says Pope. "As much as the show is about sexy, beautiful people working in a sexy, beautiful place, it really is more about the fact that they always support each other. And that's kind of the place where we'd all like to work."

It's that kind of place NBC wanted in 2002, as they'd been actively pursuing Vegas-centric scripts. DreamWorks TV co-heads Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank (both are executive producers on the series) approached Thompson to discuss developing a Vegas series. Stone Village Pictures president (and former series exec producer) Scott Steindorff, who suggested the focusing element of surveillance, took Thompson around the City of Sin, and within days they were pitching to the network.

The five-minute pitch consisted of a visionary scene Thompson had dreamed up that ultimately opened the series -- along with as many crazy Vegas stories as they could recall. "I finished up the teaser, and the execs said, 'Sold,'" recalls Thompson. "I said, 'Don't you want to hear the rest of it?' and they said, 'We don't need to.'"

According to Pope, what really sold that day was Thompson himself, who at the time was best known for his "The Fast and the Furious" (2001) script. The network, she explains, wanted to do "Love Boat" in a casino, as seen through the filter of Thompson's "Fast and Furious" world.

"Gary designed a great template," says Frank. "We had the procedural story with surveillance, but he always found a way within the B and C story to include lighter moments."

Once greenlighted, a hotel and casino set (loosely resembling Las Vegas' Mandalay Bay) was constructed on an L.A. soundstage, thus giving the network an easy generic casino set for any other homegrown shows looking for Vegas scenes. ("Heroes" and "Crossing Jordan" have used the sets -- the latter crossing over with "Vegas" for several episodes.)

Setting his universe in Vegas also meant Thompson could draw on real-life nuttiness, just as he did in the pitch meeting after touring the town with Steindorff. But, acknowledges Falvey, it couldn't be straight drama. "The types of stories you wanted to tell were lighter, fantastical," he says. "That's what we wanted to get across to the audience -- a little part of them should feel like they're in Vegas for the hour."

Over the years, the show's unpredictability has won enough devotees to convince TNT to add the show to its daytime lineup. "The series follows 'ER' on our schedule, and we're happy with its performance in that time slot," says Ken Schwab, senior vp programming for TNT and TBS. "'Las Vegas' has an attractive cast and is centered on an iconic city. And it has a very loyal fan base."

A base that shook a little at the September departure of original cast member -- and arguably, show anchor -- James Caan. "I don't think the show would've gone without Jimmy," says Molly Sims (Delinda Deline). "He added some clout. I think it was hard in his heart for him to leave."

Josh Duhamel (Danny McCoy) agrees. "I don't know if we'd have made it past the first season without (Caan). He was the weight."

Caan's departure in September was amicable, but it left the show without a true centerpiece -- even though, by the fourth season, Duhamel and many of his co-stars had more than proved they could carry the story line. When discussions began about who could be brought in as a new heavyweight, Thompson immediately thought of Tom Selleck, but wasn't sure if they could get him. For one thing, he'd only been dabbling in TV series over the previous 10 years, with the 1998 sitcom "The Closer," a role on "Friends" and more recently on ABC's "Boston Legal." But, says Thompson, "You never know if someone will do something unless you ask them."

When Selleck said yes, Thompson and the actor helped build the character of A.J.

Cooper, the Montecito's new owner. "When you have an icon like Jimmy Caan, you don't replace him -- you just replace his character," Thompson says. "You don't have any choice but to bring in someone as iconic."

As it happens, Caan's exit might have been a blessing in disguise. Thompson explains, "After four years of the actors and the writers knowing everything about every character, a show can become stale." But since Selleck's arrival, the writers have been discovering some new notes to play, and the actors have been getting to explore some new dynamics with a new star.

"We've been having a lot of fun," Thompson says. "Unfortunately, the strike stopped the fun. But we've got a lot more places we can go once we get back."   
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