Viva Laughlin: "Pilot"

Viva Laughlin: "Pilot"



Premieres tonight on CBS, 10:00 pm ET/9:00 pm CT

Oh, rock and roll musicals. When will you stop breaking my heart? I have a guitar case full of hopes and dreams invested in Viva Laughlin, the Hugh Jackman-produced American version of the British hit Viva Blackpool!. But judging by the uneven tone and quality of the first episode, I suspect my singing ex-pat dreamboats might be diving out the window just ahead of my angry husband. (In this metaphor, the angry husband represents the cadre of CBS executives, not my actual angry husband.)

All I can do is beg any Nielsen households within the reach of this electronic publication to tune in for a few weeks, long enough to give the promising bits a chance to find their footing. Because there's something charming about the show's stumbling attempts to be showbiz. Lloyd Owen, yet another refugee from the British Empire playing an American on U.S. television (he's Welsh), plays Ripley Holden, a self-made businessman who's parlayed his chain of convenience stores into a shot at the casino business on the Colorado River. But his chief investor turns up shot in Holden's office the night after he's pulled his money out of the project. So there's a homicide detective watching Holden's every move, while he tries to deal with the investor's slutty wife (they have a past) and the evil casino magnate who wants to take over his property (they hate each other's guts from way back).

Oh, and about four to five times an episode, if the pilot is any indication, the leads will sing along with classic rock songs, jump up on poker tables, and do some minimal choreography.

Predictably for my musical-theater-loving soul (I couldn't get enough of this ad for this show even though they showed it during every single commercial break of the Tonys a few months back), the musical sequences, strangely conceived and almost apologetic as they are, were the most vibrant parts of the hour for me. Suddenly the camera is on the move as Owen stalks through his under-construction gambling floor, growling out "Let It Ride" an octave below Randy Bachman. Or Hugh Jackman, playing the Satanic casino head, struts into his establishment singing "Sympathy for the Devil" while his red-clad showgirls swirl around him and slot machines hit jackpots at his command. I can do without the "One Way Or Another" duet between Owen and Melanie Griffith, playing the dead investor's wife, but even though it doesn't work, I appreciate the way the performers gamely give it a shot.

And there's a glimmer of quirk in Lloyd Owen's Ripley that might just need time to mature. Owen plays the part like he's in a gangland comedy, mumbling his rapid-fire dialogue around a clenched jaw like he's doing a Fred MacMurray impression. Not only are his theatrical mannerisms odd, like the low-wattage charisma of a regional theater Billy Flynn, but the writing betrays a hint that the character's supposed to be humorously weird, not just strung-out; when his son sells his sports car to help his dad climb out of debt, Ripley grudgingly thanks him by observing, "Hey, that zit on your face? It's clearing up real nice."

Can a show structured around a murder mystery survive with this empty suit of a homicide detective, though? Eric Winter of Days Of Our Lives seems to think that a loosened tie, three days of stubble and a Twizzler habit equals character, but he's supposed to balance Jackman's Nicky Fontana corporate raider as a nemesis from the justice system. A thankless task to start with -- matching smoldering looks with Wolverine is a challenge to strike fear in the hearts of the strong -- but Winter isn't anywhere in the ballpark. If Jackman is Vegas, Winter is Laughlin -- and he needs to be Reno, at the very least.

Maybe the "music of your life" soundtrack and the Pai-Gow-and-keno backdrop will pull enough of CBS' traditional demographic to keep the show around for a showstopper or two. As long as they dangle the prospect of Owen and Jackman in a climactic dance-off, I'll be tuning in.

Grade: B-

Stray observations:


- Griffith looks better in medium shots than she's looked in years -- her plastic surgery has relaxed enough not to be completely distracting -- but in closeup you can see the untrimmed sections of her face collapsing around the reconstructed parts. It's disturbingly reminiscent of Madam, from Waylon Flowers and Madam.

- Hey, the professor from Veronica Mars is playing ... a professor!

- It's a testimony to the show's potential that I was on the edge of my seat during the big "bet it all on red" sequence at Nicky Fontana's casino at the end -- and that's because I didn't know if the season plot was "Holden and Fontana, rival casino owners" or "Holden swallows his pride and takes a job with Fontana." Sometimes lack of familiarity with the source material pays off.

- I recommend an offscreen trip to the judge to change the lead character's name, though. Ripley Holden may be the worst faux-literary two-first-names moniker on television.

- The pilot we were sent for review was only forty minutes long, which makes me wonder whether it will be padded out with ads for next year's Tonys.

- Hole cards: hot casino action, "living the dream," Hugh Jackman. Dangers lurking in the deck: boring domestic drama, half-hearted attempts at flashy editing, Eric Winter.

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