The promise of an easy million bucks, a stage crowded with sexy models and the smoothly calibrated charm of host Howie Mandel made "Deal or No Deal" an unexpected hit in television's December dead zone.

Now the NBC game show, returning 8 p.m. EST Monday for five consecutive days, is getting the chance to prove it's the real deal and can compete in the thick of the TV season.

Based on a series that debuted in Holland in 2002 and became an international hit, "Deal or No Deal" is about luck and playing the odds.

Contestants are faced with 26 briefcases held by 26 models, each case with a hidden value ranging from a penny to the top prize that will escalate by week's end to $3 million.

As the game progresses and cases are eliminated, a contestant weighs the chance of snaring a big prize against lesser but still tempting offers made by the show's "bank," represented by an anonymous, silhouetted figure.

The toughest part, Mandel said, is "to not scream, 'You idiot, please take the money and go home now.' When I see a person make the wrong decision, it really depresses me."

The concept is simple but executed to within an inch of its life. The models, identically dressed and carefully posed, bring to mind the robotic babes in Robert Palmer's classic "Addicted to Love" video, but in platoon strength.

The set is bright and shiny, like a bucketful of silver dollars; the atmosphere charged with money lust. Mandel, an actor ("St. Elsewhere") and comedian, is a natural-born host, offering gentle jokes and encouragement and skillfully juicing the drama as he utters the "Deal, or no deal?" catch phrase.

"For this show to play in prime time, it needed to be big, glossy, exciting and sexy — very much in the American tradition," said David Goldberg, president of series producer Endemol USA.

In other countries, the prizes are smaller (Albanians shoot for $50,000) and the models either a minor part of the show or nonexistent. The imposing silver briefcases in the U.S. version of the game are, in the Italian series, amusingly modest shoeboxes.

But the spirit is the same, said Goldberg.

"I think the simplicity of the game is what makes it successful," he said. "It taps into the most basic human emotions: greed, a desire to improve one's situation, often in a very sort of get-rich-quick scenario. It's something we can all relate to."

Endemol, which has produced other international successes including "Big Brother" and "Fear Factor," may have the American audience's number.

When "Deal or No Deal" aired the week of Dec. 19, it nabbed five of the top 20 spots in the Nielsen ratings and drew an audience that reached as high as 14.1 million. That's not "American Idol" territory (which closes in on 30 million viewers), but struggling NBC will take it.

Coming off a mediocre Winter Olympics and ranking third in total viewers for the season so far, the network needs a jolt.

Airing the series for a week in various time slots will test where it can best be used in the future, perhaps twice weekly, said Mitch Metcalf, executive vice president, program planning and scheduling, for NBC Universal.

The trick is to avoid what ABC did to TV's last hit prime-time game show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," which died from massive overexposure.

The goal for "Deal or No Deal," Metcalf said, is "using it while it's hot, while there's great interest in it. You want to keep the engine running at a nice level but not burn it out too fast. It's a balancing act."

For Mandel, the job he first resisted has turned into a pleasure. He was afraid his standup career — he appears at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and around the country — and other jobs in film and TV might be compromised.

While he appreciates what game show hosts do, he said, "you can see how you can get pigeonholed."

But when an Endemol executive demonstrated the concept for him, Mandel was hooked.

"I thought, 'This is a really fun game. There's no trivia, no stunts. My kids would love this game,'" he recalled. He revels in the tension of contestants deciding whether to take an offer or hold out for the chance of more and helps them by figuring the odds.

He'd be happy to balance "Deal or No Deal" and his other work for years to come, Mandel said.

Will the show prove to have staying power? NBC's Metcalf does his own calculations.

"I think the odds are against a very, very long run, but one never knows. The drama in this show is undeniable."