Sometimes it takes a little while for a show to hit its stride, and watching Las Vegas for the first half of its first season was a crapshoot. About the only reliable diversions were seeing the Montecito Resort & Casino big shot James Caan (''The Godfather'' icon, star of great small films like 1981's ''Thief'' and, most to the point, 1974's ''The Gambler'') interact with his right-hand man, former ''All My Children'' cast member Josh Duhamel. The doe-eyed Duhamel and craggy Caan quickly developed an easy, light-comic rapport that's been fun to take in. Oh, and so is Nikki Cox's Mary Connell, whose business wardrobe forces her to enter rooms about seven inches behind her chest, thus giving an inadvertent double meaning to her job title, ''director of special events.''
In its early episodes, ''Las Vegas'' was mighty soapy. Caan is ''Big Ed'' Deline, who runs surveillance and security for the fictional Montecito. Duhamel's Danny was monkeying around with Big Ed's daughter, the is-that-your-porn-name Delinda Deline (MTV grad Molly Sims). But Danny was also not immune to the allure of the joint's pit boss, Nessa (Marsha Thomason), or casino host Sam (Vanessa Marcil). Soon enough, however, creator Gary Scott Thompson and his writers realized they needed to make ''Las Vegas''' hustlers, visitors, and Elvis impersonators more than background noise for Duhamel's trysts. So the series pumped up the guest-star quotient.
That's when the fun began, around the turn of this year, when people as diverse as Paris Hilton, Sean Astin, Dennis Hopper, and Sugar Ray's Mark McGrath began showing up, either as themselves or as thinly disguised versions of themselves (promos touted Hilton as playing ''the ultimate gold digger'' -- we're not exactly talking Paris tackling Helen Keller here). I particularly enjoyed the Sugar Ray: Not only did we see McGrath and his band do a primo Vegas-schlock version of ''Every Morning,'' but producers worked the singer into an absurd subplot that found Big Ed suspicious that McGrath was cheating with his wife. If I add that Mrs. Big Ed is played by a middle-aged-bodacious Cheryl Ladd and that, in a jealous rage, Ed barked at Danny, ''Whaddya got on this Mark McGrath?'' as if the rocker were a thug lothario, you'll understand why this series has become such a campy hoot.
''Las Vegas'' borrows its flash and amiable-tough-guy tone from the 1978 -- 81 Robert Urich show ''Vega$.'' And since ''CSI'' became a hit with swooping microscopic camera moves, ''Las Vegas'' does the same; it doesn't matter that on the two ''CSI'' shows, those shots (mostly into dead bodies) serve a purpose. On ''Las Vegas,'' a camera zooms in on one bead of sweat running down the sideburn of a gambler; the globule expands to fill the screen, then spins and reflects the action in the casino before plopping away. The point of this? Um, none. It just looks fancy. Which, you might say, is a metaphor for the glitz of Vegas. Creator Thompson, the guy who wrote ''The Fast and the Furious'' and ''Timecop 2,'' and writer Gardner Stern (everything from ''Law & Order'' to the Fox flop ''John Doe'') have come up with a winning mix of narrative speediness -- every subplot introduced in the first 15 minutes; every outcome foreseen in the first 16 -- and embraceable cheese.
When you cast ''90210'''s Brian Austin Green ('scuse me, ''Brian Green'' these days) as Paris Hilton's leering lover, you know you've got a series that's increasingly confident it can make you stick around for its no-brainer stories.
I mean, any episode that offers up June Lockhart as Big Ed's meddling mother and permits Caan to refer to ''Lassie'''s TV mom as ''a hundred pounds of pain in the ass'' is evidence of a series whose simple pleasures bode well for hitting the syndication jackpot. At the very least, Jimmy Caan has earned a nice retirement package, and maybe by season 2, ''Las Vegas'' will be so relaxed by success, the producers will release Nikki Cox from her harness and put her into a frumpy jumpsuit. That poor girl is havin' to work it way too hard.