'Viva Laughlin': CBS Gambles On a Gimmick

Jackpot or snake eyes? The odds seem stacked against the casino-themed
Jackpot or snake eyes? The odds seem stacked against the casino-themed "Viva Laughlin" featuring Lloyd Owen and guest star Melanie Griffith. (By Robert Voets -- Cbs)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 18, 2007

On the one hand, we need more TV shows that can make viewers' eyes pop and jaws drop -- daring departures from the numbing norm, shows that aren't calculated copies of previous hits. Then again, as the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for, because you might get "Viva Laughlin," a dizzy loop-de-loop ride whose departures are so awkward and absurd that they make the norm look pretty darned good.

Chief among those dubious innovations: The characters on "Viva Laughlin" occasionally break into song and a minimalist kind of dance. The series isn't a musical in the traditional Rodgers-and-Hammerstein sense, or in the more modern Andrew Lloyd Webber sense or even in the cockamamie, hyperkinetic "Moulin Rouge" sense. The "singers" don't lip-sync to their own prerecorded tracks, but rather sing along with tracks recorded by both themselves and others.

It's karaoke gone cuckoo, mawkish mush with a thump-and-bump beat -- a rinky-tinky hybrid of "Dallas," "Dynasty" and "Bye Bye Birdie." And, oh yes, "American Idol." There's a temptation to compare the show to Steven Bochco's colosso-fiasco "Cop Rock," but at least "Cop Rock," the musical crime show, had an original score. The geniuses behind "Laughlin," which is based on the British series "Blackpool," just interpolate numbers from other sources.

All the actors have to do is sing along and tap their toes. With this much synthesized help, even one's tone-deaf cousin Cathy could "sing" on TV and get away with it. Of course there's no heart, no authenticity, no musicianship -- and no sense.

So, as the premiere opens tonight on CBS (after which the show moves to a Sunday night slot), rugged and thuggish antihero Ripley Holden (Lloyd Owen) strides into his unfinished casino, high-fives a member of the construction crew, wriggles and rattles and shows off his ostensibly cool moves and sings along with Elvis's "Viva Las Vegas" -- even though, as a superimposed caption asserts, he and Laughlin are about 100 miles south of there.

His big dream -- other than, perhaps, learning how to sing for real -- is to build a casino where no poker chip has even plopped before, and to combine it with a 1,300-room, five-star hotel. But then, even before the second commercial break, Holden suffers a body blow: His partner, Buddy Baxter (Wings Hauser), suddenly decides to back out, leaving Holden at least $1 million shy. That, of course, is the only shy thing about him.

Holden bops on over to see archenemy and casino operator Nicky Montana, played by guest star Hugh Jackman. Montana says he knows Holden is mortgaged up to his "melons." Earlier, in satin suit and silk shirt, Montana gets to make his own singing entrance, leaping up onto a gaming table as Holden had done, but singing a song more suited to his character: The Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil." A chorus of casino workers surrounds the table and gapes in abject admiration.

In addition to Holden, Melanie Griffith, or a bionic simulation, makes a guest appearance as Bunny Baxter, wife of Buddy. "I want to give my Bunny the best," Baxter had said. He might have started with a new lip job; Griffith's mouth seems smeared across her face, her strange, virtual visage in a permanent, pouty pucker.

Madchen Amick, who plays Holden's wife, Natalie, has, by contrast, a seemingly natural, organic and mysterious beauty. Not that there's anything wrong with "having a little work done," especially in a trickily fickle business that's unjustly cruel to women who dare to age. But there's work and there's hard labor. Griffith's appearance is a poignant echo of happier times for us all.

Arguably prettier is show-stealing actor Eric Winter, veteran of the daytime soaps and refreshingly laid-back compared with all the maniacally ambitious screwballs around. Winter plays Peter Carlyle, a Colorado cop assigned to investigate a murder that momentarily interrupts the pseudo-singing and demi-dancing. Carlyle maintains an implosive deportment that suggests he's suppressing gales of laughter. No one can blame him for that.

In addition to listening in on the wheeling and dealing that goes on in garishly lavish offices (Montana's has "Sin" spelled out in neon), we're also given glimpses into Holden's home life. He stops dancing long enough to get into bed with the missus, but turns his bare back to her when she attempts a bit of lovemaking. His behavior isn't explained, although one can sense he feels lonely without a mirror to cling to. He also rejects a ludicrous musical overture from the bewitching Bunny, whose attempted seduction is one of the howliest scenes in the show.

Ripley and Natalie have three adolescent children. An 18-year-old daughter is trying to date a 42-year-old professor, which makes Pops anything but proud; he threatens the prof with bodily harm should the romance continue. In an early scene, he gives his son a Corvette for the boy's birthday. Sonny doesn't even say thank you before roaring off toward the interstate. Later, though, he does have a redeeming moment.

But what redeems Daddy? Marching around in a full fake-macho mode, Holden seems nothing more glorified than a creep, a big boss man modeled perhaps after Vince McMahon, low-lifey board chairman of World Wrestling Entertainment and known for slapping or punching interviewers who get under his skin. Holden exhibits a smug, superior self-assurance that a network executive such as CBS honcho Leslie Moonves might admire -- the sort of slick, lounge-lizardly power monger who'd watch "The Carpetbaggers" and wonder why everybody hates George Peppard.

That might help explain How This Thing Got On The Air, the kind of question that always arises when you run into a real ringer. Who knows, though? Many viewers may find "Viva Laughlin" campy and crazy enough to be fun -- not the kind of series to which one can become sentimentally attached, but something that keeps you guessing as it clunks along, asking the musical question: "What will they try next?"

Unfortunately it toys with other questions -- chief among them the rhetorical refrain, "How corny can you get?" Few seem likely to stay tuned for the answer.

Viva Laughlin (one hour) premieres tonight at 10 on Channel 9; it debuts in its regular time slot Sunday night at 8.

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