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NETWORKS CAN'T RESIST TEMPTATIONS OF SIN CITY

Sin City. That's what it's called with a wink and a smile in middle America. It's the place with the greatest catch phrase since McDonald's' "You deserve a break today." To wit: "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas."

Come one, come all, in other words. And leave your wildest fantasies behind you - including, but by no means limited to, sudden acquisition of life-changing wealth. If your fantasies also involve a pom-pom, an armadillo and Cher concert tickets, someone in Vegas may well try to accommodate you. Ask Britney Spears. Courtesy of Vegas, she had a 55-hour marriage (no word on whether armadillos or Cher tickets were involved).

One stop sin and expiation (i.e. you can gamble, and then lose all your money as penance).

Go there and they'll be happy to tell you all over town that it's the fastest growing city in America. Heaven knows it's been the fastest growing city on TV ever since all those high-gloss Jerry Bruckheimer people on "CSI" began sorting through the town's gore, goo, ick and garbage.

NBC set up shop there in the middle of Monday nights in a series called simply "Las Vegas." CBS tried - and failed - to get away with life supports for the careers of Rob Lowe and tabloid tempest Tom Sizemore in the doomed "dr. vegas."

That's not all. Or even close. Courtesy of the Bravo Network, where they have Queer Eyes for Straight Guys and famous actors talking "Inside the Actor's Studio," we also have celebrity poker at the Palms - a bunch of happy third- and fourth-tier people assembled by "The West Wing's" Josh Malina to explore the mysteries of Texas Hold "Em.

Over at the Game Show Network, they snag celebrities who find poker too complicated to come to town to play celebrity blackjack.

This is a long way from Robert Urich gliding through "Vegas" with a T-Bird and TV's widest shoulders. On Urich's show - an early Aaron Spelling number - Vegas was less a stand-in for Sin City than it was a private-eye version of "77 Sunset Strip" about improbable doings in low-level showbiz. About all it had in common with NBC's "Las Vegas" is that the frequent plunge of Phyllis Davis' decolletage on "Vegas" was as formidable as Nikki Cox' on "Las Vegas."

They pretend to take sin seriously on "Las Vegas." On Monday, we were treated to the distinction between a hostess at a Las Vegas luxury casino and a member of what is cheerfully euphemized as "the world's oldest profession." (Hostesses, it seems, do everything except that to make sure a well-heeled "whale" loses his shirt at the tables.)

On other weeks - Sweeps usually - they just send the camera operators out to the pool to graze among the tans and bikinis. James Caan presides over all the cast pulchritude and good cheer with the undeniable authority of an aging actor a good 15 years past his prime enjoying a weekly job where he is a welcome regular presence in our living rooms and bedrooms.

If you think that's a funny place for a long-certified hellraiser to wind up, consider the ultra-weird case of Lowe.

Once upon a time, when movies didn't want him anymore, he was supposed to be the big star of "The West Wing." Until, that is, Aaron Sorkin actually started writing scripts and the show went on the air. He found himself part of the best ensemble on TV. In disappointment, he bolted to make a deeply confused legal series whose name I won't mention out of kindness.

And now, on the cancelled "dr. vegas," he was on the air weekly as a sleazy hotel doctor - a dedicated medic with an unfortunate taste for single-malt scotch at 3 a.m. and for all the action casino tables provide.

The show was kept very cheerful and Lowe-antiseptic, mind you. All the weekly problems were soapy, "Love Boat" things. But just one layer below, there really was something genuinely sleazy and unwholesome about "dr. vegas" - not pseudo-sleazy, as in TV's prime-time version of sin but something genuinely dissolute and desolate in spirit, where it really counts.

For Lowe's sake, let's hope that what happened in Vegas really does stay in Vegas.

E-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com