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Viva Laughlin: Bet Big, Lose Big

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Robert Voets/CBS

It didn’t have to be this way.

I feel compelled to defend Viva Laughlin at least that far–and it’s as far as I’m willing to go–because it’s important to separate the deserved criticism of this truly bad show from the undeserved criticism. Namely, that it was doomed to be bad because it was a bad idea: a murder mystery, about a casino enterpreneur, in which the characters sing along with pop songs.

In fact, Viva Laughlin had the makings of a good show. Literally, because the BBC series on which it was based, Viva Blackpool, was in fact a very good show: weird, thrilling and oddly moving. In that show, a small-time resort operator (David Morrisey) dreams of founding a big-time casino in the gray seaside town of Blackpool and ends up accused of killing someone to make it happen.

CBS bought the show last spring, apparently fell in love with it very briefly, then immediately became terrified that Cold Case and 60 Minutes fans would hate it. Maybe it was cold feet. Maybe one corporate hand decided it didn’t like what another corporate hand had decided to do. Either way, CBS took the show and promptly ruined it. More precisely, it CBS’ed it. What’s that verb? “CBS. vt. To take a creative idea, flatten the characters, sand down the subtlety, and light every scene like CSI.” CBS gambled, in other words, but didn’t have the guts to go all in.

The biggest problem is the casting. I can accept Melanie Griffith–who simply should not be in anything, ever–singing along to Blondie’s “One Way or Another.” But Lloyd Owen is irredeemably off as Ripley Holden. He delivers every line like he’s in a community-theater production of Guys and Dolls. He’s not menacing; he’s a Broadway rake. You can believe him punching out the professor who’s dating his teen daughter, but the show never makes it plausible that he could be a killer, which is just a teensy problem in a murder mystery. (Producer Hugh Jackman is captivating as Holden’s big-casino rival–too much so, whenever he shares screen time with Owen–but he’s on for only a few minutes.)

Viva Laughlin retains Blackpool’s basic plot, but it’s sunnier, more swaggering, handsomer, more optimistic, more telegenic. In other words, it’s totally wrong. Blackpool was an essential character in Viva Blackpool, a scummy, desperate place (I have no idea if this describes the actual Blackpool) where it seemed anything could happen and a man might do anything to better his life. Viva Laughlin’s Laughlin, Nev., is sunny, slick, candy-colored–another glossy CBS la-la-land where somebody happened to get killed.

The dialogue, too, is too musical-theater and stagey, which again undercuts what was Blackpool’s strength: playing the artifice of having characters burst into song against a realistic depiction of hungry, none-too-bright people in over their heads. Sad, dirty Blackpool achieved a poignancy on top of its tawdriness that is utterly missing here. (It also helped that Blackpool’s musical choices were better-curated and more affecting–e.g., Elvis Costello’s “Brilliant Mistake”–than Viva’s crowd-pleasing singalongs like “Sympathy for the Devil.”)

So while I’ll damn the execution, I won’t damn the attempt. There are too many executives at CBS, I suspect, who are only too ready to hear the message that innovation is a bad idea, that they stick to their “core brand strength,” that they should play it very, very safe from now on. (They’re nervous already, I’ll bet you, about their ’70s key-party drama Swingtown, for midseason, although it looked good in a preview reel.) Stay away from Viva Laughlin, but think twice before cracking those Cop Rock jokes. Next fall, when CBS adds another seven CSIs to the schedule, you won’t be laughing.