It’s a sure bet they’ll start singing on ‘Viva Laughlin’

Times Staff Writer

“Viva Laughlin,” which premieres tonight on CBS, is a show in which the characters sometimes sing and dance to pop songs, as if they were suddenly in a musical. It is based on a British miniseries, broadcast here by BBC America as “Viva Blackpool,” which in turn took its central conceit from the Dennis Potter-penned avant-TV classics “Pennies From Heaven” and “The Singing Detective” (remade here as films). Both the American series and its British forebear concern a man named Ripley Holden (here played by Lloyd Owen) who dreams of building the nicest hotel-casino in all of Laughlin, Nev., and whose life and plans are waylaid by a murder for which he is the prime suspect.

The underlying concept isn’t hard to swallow: We are all schooled in musicals, one way or another, and many television shows already license pop songs to help sell their wares -- this just adds a little choreography. Indeed, the new series could stand to be a lot stranger and more fabulous than it is. As it is, it’s inert, lacking the studied garishness, shabbiness and hallucinatory edge of the original and finding nothing of particular interest to replace it with -- like the Nevada casino experience itself, it is a sanitized, steroidal version of something darker and more authentic.

Can something be both stale and half-baked? Scenes meant to create excitement -- as when Ripley stakes all the money left in his kitty on a couple of turns of the roulette wheel at his rival’s casino -- fall flat, seem oddly amateurish. The rival, called Nicky Fontana, is played by Hugh Jackman, a musical theater star himself, and an executive producer of the series. Fontana, who is not nice, makes his entrance to the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” in a number designed as a negative parallel to Ripley’s own opening number, set to Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas” -- they both end singing from atop a gaming table.


If there is nothing suitably dazzling about this world, there is nothing the least little bit real about it, either. Local detail, which might have been successfully mined, is largely absent. Settings are generic; Ripley’s house is big and catalog-tasteful. Apart from a few nice desert views, the series might be set nowhere at all.

No one involved seems to be able to get a grip on the material, to have vetted the script for sense, or to have studied how to shoot a musical number. (Gabriele Muccino, who directed the Will Smith film “The Pursuit of Happyness,” directed the pilot.) “Laughlin” creator/pilot-scripter Bob Lowry did much better with his Showtime series, “Huff”; here, he’s at a disadvantage, shoehorning a site-specific plot into a location it doesn’t really fit. Perhaps the problem is that, while in Britain upward mobility remains slightly suspect, in the United States it’s practically unpatriotic not to “dream big”; the plot loses something in translation from a small-time milieu to a world where everything is supersized, in a country where heroes have to win.

You can’t blame the creative team for what the publicity department writes, but these are words used in a CBS press release to describe Ripley’s character: “eternal optimist,” “freewheeling,” “fearless and tenacious,” “outgoing and passionate” “infectious personality,” “dry wit.” But Owen’s Ripley is none of these. He is hard to credit as either a hero, anti-hero, husband, father, businessman or even a man with a dream. Instead, Owen -- a British actor who seems to have modeled his American accent on Billy Crystal’s -- comes off as merely brash, annoying and self-righteous.

But we are supposed to like him; that is the American way. Where the “Blackpool” Ripley (played by David Morrissey, an actor who keeps his inner thug on speed dial) was a fearsome, ultimately self-destructive character, the American is a good guy who might have been bad once, but wants to be better. (He had an affair with his partner’s wife, played by Melanie Griffith in lingerie, which he refuses to rekindle.)

He may neglect his family at times, but the pilot ends with father and son, who have had difficulty communicating, sharing a Hallmark moment in the glow of Dad’s new casino sign. Boo-yah!



‘Viva Laughlin’

Where: CBS

When: 10 to 11 tonight; moves to

regular time 8 to 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14 L (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14 with

advisory for coarse language)