TV Review: 'Viva Laughlin'

Narratively lax, creatively unfocused and in every way inferior to its British source material, "Viva Laughlin" isn't a very good show. But do you know what has been amusing? Watching CBS scramble to promote an unpromotable show.

I've seen ads positioning "Viva Laughlin" as murder mystery, as a musical, as a Hugh Jackman vehicle and, in the oddest reach for an audience yet, as a Melanie Griffith vehicle. You've gotta give "Viva Laughlin" credit for one thing: It's got something to disappoint everybody.

The thing that's hardest to promote is the actual plot. Lloyd Owen plays Ridley Holden, a self-made businessman in a third-tier Nevada gambling hub. Holden has pulled himself up by his bootstraps and he's ready to start the best darned casino Laughlin has ever seen, which slightly concerns his wife (Madchen Amick) and kids (Carter Jenkins and Ellen Woglom). Things go from bad to worse when Holden's major financial backer turns up dead and Ridley looks like a prime suspect, particularly since he may be having a dalliance with the corpse's surgically rejuvenated wife (Griffith).

Jackman plays vastly more successful rival casino owner Nicky Fontana, a man so wicked he enters singing the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil."

Yes, indeed, he enters singing, which won't surprise the dozen people who watched the miniseries "Viva Blackpool," but is sure to put a bee in the bonnet of viewers of the entirely incompatible "60 Minutes" lead-in. With somewhat less frequency than in the British original, characters just start singing along with recognizable pop songs, not quite doing karaoke, but clearly not just lip-synching. "Blackpool" was so confrontational with the off-beat musical style that viewers had no choice but to become accustomed to it, but "Laughlin" is far more tentative, limiting its initial production numbers so severely that they seem like scrapped ideas from an early version of the show.

It's too bad, too, because if CBS is going to spend so much time patting itself on the back for the show's audacity, it would help if "Viva Laughlin" were actually audacious.

If I'm being honest, I was pretty tepid on "Viva Blackpool," which felt to me like a warmed over rehash of Dennis Potter's ("The Singing Detective") leftovers. At least that show had the courage of its convictions. It was brash, colorful and boasted the small-screen star power of David Morrissey, David Tennant and Sarah Parrish, who outshine their American counterparts Owen, Eric Winter and Amick.

The biggest advantage "Laughlin" has is Jackman, also naturally it's biggest disadvantage. Every second he's on the screen, he radiates star-power, so much so that he leaves Owen, all square-jaw and awful American accent, looking even more generic than he probably already is. The energy Jackman supplies creates a vacuum when he's gone and guess what? He's going to be gone a lot. Despite a few box office duds to his name, Jackman is a long way from needing to retreat to the boob tube full time, so even if he's filmed a number of appearances for upcoming episodes, don't grow too accustomed to him.

Of the other stars, the only ones with the necessary wattage to overcome or subvert the boring mystery backdrop are D.B. Woodside, comfortable with a malevolent swagger, and Griffith, who doesn't sing or act so much as embody her trashy character.

I don't expect "Viva Laughlin" to last very long, despite the inevitable sampling audience for its Thursday (Oct. 18) night premiere. That doesn't mean I won't be watching with perverse curiosity to see what happens, particularly after the already shifting creative team moves beyond the six hours of plot in the original. I won't blame you if you don't stick around with me.

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