Review: CBS' 'Viva Laughlin' a train wreck

'Viva Laughlin'

Nicky (Hugh Jackman), left, and Ripley (Lloyd Owen) discuss the casino business on "Viva Laughlin." (CBS Photo)


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The stud is a dud. And that's only the first of a dozen problems with CBS' admirably ambitious but jaw-droppingly wrongheaded new musical/murder mystery/family drama "Viva Laughlin."

Let us count the ways it bombs. First would be lead Lloyd Owen, as the wheeler-dealer dreamer battling to open his own hotel-casino in the lesser gambling mecca of Laughlin, Nev. Owen is asked in his very first scene to sing along with Elvis, no less, to "Viva Las Vegas," of course. Cruising around his desert town crooning, this high-stakes gambler radiates no dynamism, no swagger, no sex appeal. Only his own (inappropriate) British accent sneaks through. (You may or may not remember Owen as Indy's dad in "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" of the '90s, or more recently as Paul in the final seasons of Britain's "Monarch of the Glen.")

But the whole notion of having actors sing along to familiar pop songs - the Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" when a conniver is introduced, Blondie's "One Way or Another" when our lead gets cornered by a former flame - is problematic here. The numbers are supposed to advance the plot, as in stage or movie musicals. But that only works when emotions are so strong they can't not be vocalized. You shouldn't burst into song unless you're about to burst, period. And everyone in "Viva Laughlin" behaves as if they're idly singing along to the radio.

The plot doesn't help. Owen's Ripley Holden is such a resourceful dude, we're informed, that "no one can deny the fact that you turned one convenience store into 12 little gold mines." Big whoop. He's also got plodding problems at home - a bored wife (Madchen Amick), a loose-ends teen son, a college daughter dating an older guy. And now a financial crisis and a charismatic rich rival (guest star/series producer Hugh Jackman), and then a dead body to contend with, and a detective (Eric Winter) on his case and after his wife. Oh my. Lions and tigers and bears.

"Viva Laughlin" is so bland, with dialogue so hackneyed, all I kept thinking was, there's a drinking game in here somewhere.

Which is really disappointing, considering the source material. "Viva Blackpool" was a zesty 2004 British miniseries about the northern seaside gambling town, which presented essentially the same story in song but with a point and panache. Taut drama, comfortably shared screen time with entire-cast conga lines.

Too bad we can't blame my initial response to "Laughlin" on the comparison, because I screened CBS' American version twice (to make sure I really was seeing what I thought I was seeing) before first watching the Brit original (aired here on BBC America). In that one, lead David Morrissey ("Basic Instinct 2") is a go-getting house-afire, jocular yet devilish, delivering clever lines with zip. ("The law's supposed to be a mystery. That's why judges wear wigs.")

To Blackpool's Ripley Holden, "an amusement arcade is the people's stock exchange!" Morrissey gives us a lifestyle evangelist. And his enthusiasm is infectious, sweeping even the extras up into song and dance alongside him. "Viva Blackpool" uses its cityscape beautifully to render an evocative sense of place.

"Viva Laughlin" is all disjointed moments and lethargic reactions, rooted precisely nowhere. It's easy to see why the producers and CBS wanted to adapt the resonantly stylized "Blackpool" to an American setting. But in the process, they lost everything that made it sing, except the literal singing. Which you can't sell these days without the motherlode of conviction provided by galvanizing performances and crisp production.

Flat is not where it's at. Adios, "Laughlin."

VIVA LAUGHLIN. Look up "TV train wreck" in the dictionary from now on, and the definition will be this lifeless musical/drama mess about a Nevada casino entrepreneur. Series previews tonight at 10, then lands in its permanent (ha!) time slot Sunday at 8 (post-"60 Minutes"), on CBS/2.

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