New NBC action drama ‘screams Vegas’

“You know, plenty of shows out there are, like, ‘Here’s the kid with cancer; now give me an Emmy.’ We’re a show that’s here to show you a hell of a good time for 45 minutes each and every week. That’s our job.”

John Rogers speaks with the bluntness of a stand-up comic, which he was for a dozen years in the ’80s and ’90s. And that sensibility carries over into “The Player” (10 p.m. today, KSNV-TV, Channel 3), the Vegas-based action drama he co-created about billionaires gambling on crime. The adrenaline-fueled thriller is about as subtle as the scene in which a bad guy is impaled on a roulette spindle.

Rogers says his friend, “The Blacklist” producer John Fox, called him up one day with the bare-bones idea of people gambling on crime. “I was, like, ‘Well, that will never work. I mean, who would gamble on crime? You’d have to be the most horrible, depraved … oh, OK. Yes, actually that’s a great idea. Those are super good villains.’ “

Wesley Snipes, the most famous non-Muppet star of the new fall season, portrays Mr. Johnson, aka the pit boss, who along with Charity Wakefield’s Cassandra King, aka the dealer, represent a shadowy organization known as The House. The group has been spying on the world’s communications systems since the days of the telegraph and has developed a method for predicting crimes.

“When you have so much money you could never lose enough to make a difference, ordinary games become stale,” Mr. Johnson explains in the premiere. “So you begin to look for other games. Games with higher stakes.”

As with any games, these need a player on whose success or failure the members of the cabal can wager up to $100 million. When the current player’s body is found in the desert, Mr. Johnson and Cassandra recruit Alex Kane (“Strike Back’s” Philip Winchester), a former FBI agent turned “Vegas’ biggest pain-in-the-ass security consultant.”

Rogers, whose TV credits include co-creating TNT’s “Leverage” and creating that channel’s “The Librarians,” says he always knew “The Player” would be set in Las Vegas.

“Where else could it be?,” he asks. “It’s about gambling. It’s about high stakes, about action, sex and danger. It screams Vegas.”

Today’s premiere finds Alex, who attempts to thwart a kidnapping, jumping off the roof of a hotel and crashing through a 22nd floor window. Fast cars and fisticuffs are plentiful. Bullets fly every which way. At one point, Alex runs through the Fremont Street Experience in his underpants carrying a gun. The onscreen tourists seem shocked by that last event even though, knowing that part of downtown, it was probably only the seventh or eighth weirdest thing they saw that night.

While most of the pilot was filmed in Albuquerque, the production came to town long enough to film the Fremont Street scene and some driving action on the Strip. From there, Rogers’ team had to rely on a bit of fakery. In one example, the three main characters meet for the first time atop a parking garage, but nothing about the scenery along the high-velocity drive there resembles anything you’d find in Clark County. The view from the top, though, certainly does.

“We picked a spot on the map, sent someone to Vegas, and then they took pictures of what you can see from that spot,” Rogers explains. “Then we took that and digitally laid that into the background.”

Despite the specificity, that isn’t the way he prefers to shoot the local scenes. “I, personally, think you gotta go (to Las Vegas), because there’s a flavor to it, and there’s a rhythm, and there’s the people on the street. You want to be doing the city. You don’t want to be doing some guy’s image of the city in his head. You want to be honest to the city, and that’s why I think you have to go on a regular basis.”

“The Player” crew has returned to town a couple of times for filming, and there’s a dedicated second unit that Rogers says will be here every couple of episodes to film “a wide range of the city, all across the city.”

Rogers got to know Las Vegas during his stand-up days, which included regular stops at the Riviera. He even opened for Celine Dion in the old Caesars Palace showroom. Just don’t expect him to reach out to the Colosseum headliner for a guest appearance. “No, you’ll not see Celine in an episode,” he says, laughing. “We worked together. We’re not golfing buddies.”

What you will see, Rogers says, is “sort of a great, pulp, crime of the week at the same time with a deep conspiracy and big moral dilemmas and characters that (are) facing sort of life and death but not necessarily easy right choices every week.”

Following the kidnapping in the premiere, future episodes will focus on everything from an armored car heist to mob hits and hackers to a rogue sniper. “We went to the writers and said, ‘What’s the favorite crime story you never got to tell? What’s the weird crime story you want to adapt?”

“I don’t know how ‘Castle’ does it, with a dead body every week,” he adds. “I’d be bored in a year.”

While some of those stories, maybe every fourth or fifth, will take the characters to other cities, the vast majority of them will be set in Las Vegas, Rogers says, because there are so many tales to tell here.

“The fascinating thing to me about Vegas is that it’s so multifaceted, in that you go from the Strip where all the tourists think of Vegas and then four blocks away there’s the suburban homes where people live. And then you’ve got kind of the fringe-y desert community. Then you’ve got the international travelers and the most powerful people in the world that fly in. Then you’ve got the entertainment. There’s a lot of ways to tell stories and a lot of people to tell stories about in Vegas that I don’t think everybody exploits.”

— Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com. On Twitter: @life_onthecouch

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