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This Peeping-Tom World

Photo by Anthony Mandler/FOX

The last time I went to a casino I thought I’d accidentally wandered into a convention of unrepentant drunks and three-packs-a-day smokers. Although nearly everyone was wrestling with one-armed bandits or hovering over roulette wheels, gambling appeared to be an almost incidental activity. The real attraction of the place seemed to be the fact that, for once, you could drink, smoke and generally let your hair down without the health Nazis bugging you. Nor was there any social pressure. If you were in the mood to schmooze, this was a fine place to do it. And if you wanted to just sit there, blow your paycheck and cry into your beer, that was okay too. In short, amid all the glitz, silicone and neon, a remnant of the old, freewheeling America could be found.

We all know that most of what we see on television is utterly fake, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of the fact once in a while. On Las Vegas (NBC, Monday, 9 p.m.), the fourth most popular new show of the season behind Two and a Half Men, Cold Case and Navy NCIS, there isn’t a cigarette to be seen. The men look like Club Med graduates, the women flash a lot of cleavage, and everyone smiles so much you want to shoot them right in their shiny white teeth. That last bit, of course, is the personal reaction of a professional television critic and should not be attempted at home.

The Las Vegas casino in which most of Las Vegas takes place is a glittering microcosm of our peeping-Tom world. Everyone thinks about sex all the time, and someone is always watching. A grizzled James Caan, looking like a man who was accidentally dry-cleaned along with his suit, plays “Big” Ed Deline, the head of the casino’s panoptic security system, and he can regularly be found looking intently into one of several hundred screens. Danny McCoy (Josh Duhamel), young Turk and all-around jerk, is his second in command. Dramatic tension is provided courtesy of the fact that Danny is having an affair with Big Ed’s knockout of a daughter, Delinda (Molly Sims), with half of the action caught on tape. Ed can’t do much about it, so he just growls a lot and looks grim.

Which pretty much sums up Caan’s situation. Ostensibly the star of the show, he in fact takes a back seat to the real “stars,” namely anyone who’s under 30, extremely good-looking and willing to show some flesh. But the true headliner is the casino itself, with the show effectively acting as a giant serial advertisement for a smoke-free Sin City. It doesn’t make me want to go there.

 

Just two years ago it would have been hard to imagine that millions of people around the world would awake each morning to an e-mail message offering to enlarge their penis, never mind that many people on the planet don’t actually have one. (Note to spammers: They’re called “women.”) But that is the current situation. So it’s no wonder there’s a lot of porn-related programming even on supposedly respectable network television. You just can’t get away from the stuff. Watching the over-the-hill rock star sing “Love is all around me” in the new Hugh Grant movie, Love Actually, I thought to myself: No, it isn’t. Porn is all around you.

Skin, an overblown but intriguing series on Fox that was canceled after only three episodes because of low ratings, was a reasonably intelligent attempt to take a serious look

at the pornography phenomenon in a dramatic context. Sporting an evil black goatee and his own crinkly eyes, Ron Silver was utterly convincing as Larry Goldman, an L.A. porn-industry mogul being hounded by a Giulianiesque prosecutor for allegedly peddling kiddie porn. (“I hate kiddie porn,” Goldman fumed, denying the charge. “There’s a reason we call it adult entertainment.”)

Silver is an actor who can sometimes pour on a little too much schmaltz, as he did when he portrayed lawyer Alan Dershowitz in Reversal of Fortune. But here he got it just right playing a skin merchant who loves his wife and children and gives generously — even lavishly —

to charity. Skin posed some worthwhile and timely questions. Is making a living off three-ways and hot girl-on-girl action compatible with an ethical life? Should a hospital trying to build a breast-cancer wing accept a $70 million donation from a guy whose interest in breasts is strictly D-cup material? To what extent should a pornographer be accepted by society?

Despite its many flaws, Skin was in possession of that rare thing, a central character with depth, and one who promised to get even deeper as the show went on. Too bad Fox pulled the plug.