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House of Cards

''The Casino'' reveals reality of Sin City -- The latest Mark Burnett show focuses on the Golden Nugget hotel and casino and its owners attempt to bring back its glory days

It's 10:32 p.m. on a Saturday night -- and despite the soft echo of clanging slot machines nearby, the smoke-filled lobby of the Golden Nugget Las Vegas Hotel and Casino is crapping out.

A wiry brunette dressed in her Vegas finest -- a silky zebra skirt and gold lame halter with matching gold stilettos -- stands in the gaudy cream-and-white marbled entrance looking bored. A clean-shaven man with enough precious metal around his neck to make Mr. T jealous takes her hand and opens his mouth to talk. All that comes out, however, is a roaring yawn. ''Do something, will ya?'' quietly urges a red-faced cameraman standing just out of earshot from the couple. He moves in a bit, tightening the shot on their desert-tanned faces. ''Liven up, for God's sake,'' he says under his breath. ''Maybe you should get married!''

For Mark Burnett's sake, a Nugget night crawler had better pull a Britney soon: The reality pooh-bah's latest gamble is ''The Casino'' (premiering June 14 at 9 p.m.), a 13-episode unscripted drama following Internet entrepreneurs Thomas Breitling and Timothy Poster as they attempt to restore the Nugget's ''glory days'' -- though neither one of them has a karat of casino experience.

''I don't know what the hell I got myself into,'' confesses Tim Poster, or ''Tiny Tim,'' as his staff affectionately calls him to differentiate him from his partner, ''Square Tom.'' ''But I've gambled my whole life. So why not bet on this casino and this show?'' We can think of 215 million reasons not to -- but it was the Rat Pack-lovin' duo's complete willingness to lay their megabucks on the table (and risk bottoming out on national television) that persuaded Fox to give ''Casino'' a run on its expanded summer schedule. Well, that and the whole ''What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas'' thing.

''Vegas tends to inspire borderline-crazy behavior with all the bachelor parties, get-rich-quick schemes, and spur-of-the-moment marriages,'' says Burnett, who had to construct a special pit in order to tape on the highly regulated, camera-unfriendly casino floor. ''People want to have as much fun as they possibly can in 24 hours. [That] will allow an unscripted soap opera like ''The Casino'' to be edgy and sexy.''

While Sin City-based series are currently enjoying a successful revival (''Las Vegas,'' ''Celebrity Poker Showdown,'' ''American Casino,'' and the upcoming ''Dr. Vegas''), Burnett is aware that the odds of ''Casino'' hitting the ratings jackpot aren't totally in his favor. ''I know very well that unscripted dramas with contest elements and weekly eliminations are more successful,'' admits the producer, referring to the lackluster performance of his NBC series ''The Restaurant'' and his blink-and-you-missed-it surfer soap ''Boarding House: North Shore'' on The WB. ''But 'The Casino' will push the envelope a little bit, because Fox tends to push the envelope.''

In other words, expect to see a whole lot of flash and a whole lot of flesh. Along with the drunken bachelor parties and dice-rolling antics, ''The Casino'' will feature the highs and lows of several of the Golden Nugget's 3,000 employees, including the ''secretive'' assistant hotel manager and a stereotypically fast-talking, schmoozy casino host. Then there's the bevy of thong-and-fishnet-clad showgirls, who, along with the Nugget's bikini bowling team, will help ''Casino'' meet its T&A quota. ''Think of this show like 'The Love Boat,' but obviously in a casino and not on a ship,'' explains Mike Darnell, Fox's executive vice president of alternative programming and specials. ''You'll have the regulars -- like Gopher and the cruise director -- and then there will be three compelling stories each week.''

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