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TELEVISION REVIEW

Dour 'Windfall' is a losing ticketfor NBC

Money can't buy happiness. And if that line comes as breaking news, I've got a TV drama for you.

Otherwise, you'll probably experience NBC's ``Windfall" as a collection of shopworn soap-opera themes enacted by a large, undistinguished cast. About the miseries and mishaps of 20 people who win $386 million in the lottery, the series hopes viewers will be too busy keeping track of its many characters and subplots to notice its essential mustiness.

The summer series, whose history includes a rejection by Fox and then time on NBC's shelf, is a counter intuitive move at this moment. One of TV's current obsessions is handing out big money to ``real people," on shows from ``Deal or No Deal" and ``The Apprentice" to ``Survivor." Happy people win many thousands, even millions, and viewers both envy and vicariously enjoy them. Even the hero of ``My Name Is Earl" has benefited from his lottery win, karmically speaking.

``Windfall," which harps on the hardships that result from free money, is the pin in that collective fantasy bubble. The title sounds like another reality show with prizes, but it's actually that genre's melodramatic, moralistic cousin. It's the Debbie Downer of prime time.

The show's most prominent plot involves two married couples whose histories are intertwined. Nina (Lana Parrilla ) is married to Peter (Luke Perry), but she was once in love with Cameron (Jason Gedrick ), who is now married to Beth (Sarah Wynter ). Money only further complicates that love quadrangle, especially since Nina bought the winning group lottery ticket and used Cameron's birthday as the number.

Meanwhile, a handsome outlaw (D.J. Cotrona) and a teenager (Jon Foster) can't receive their winnings in their own names, so they use women they don't really know (including a Russian mail-order bride) without thinking about the consequences. A money-strapped pizza-delivery woman (Malinda Williams) is suddenly free from poverty, but not from her son's learning issues. And so on and so forth. Blackmail occurs, an illegitimate child shows up out of the blue, and at least one fraud tries to claim a share.

Also, puking happens during a celebration party. But of course, money can buy you Tums.

None of the plots and actors has enough emotional substance to make you care. The show is just a pileup of shallow unbelievability. Perry plays only one note -- passive nice guy; Gedrick struggles unsuccessfully to portray romantic ambivalence; and Wynter, formerly of ``24," just looks unintentionally uncomfortable.

They and the other actors all seem glum, as if they're having no fun at all. There's none of the glee in the air associated with the better nighttime soaps in which money plays a factor, most notably ``Dynasty." And yet there's none of the depth that could make this a character drama about how much freedom truly comes with money.

Can't buy me love, perhaps, but can buy me a break from TV mediocrity.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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