Critics are always complaining that TV is too timid, too tired and too obsessed with focus groups to try anything truly interesting.
So it gives me no pleasure to say that, of two network series premiering within 24 hours of each other this week, CBS’ genre-bending “mystery drama with music” falls flat on its face, while Fox’s latest music competition succeeds by coloring neatly inside the lines.
It’s tempting to put “Viva Laughlin” in the so-bad-it’s-good category, but its failure isn’t extravagant enough to be entertaining. Near the end of the pilot, in fact, I actually found myself exhibiting signs of the fight-or-flight response - pounding pulse, dry mouth, etc. - when I realized that yet another bizarre musical number was about to unfold.
The format weaves familiar pop songs into the story of Ripley (Lloyd Owen, “Monarch of the Glen”), an entrepreneur and family man hoping to open a casino in Laughlin, Nev., the poor man’s Las Vegas.
When a backer pulls out, our hero tries to make a deal with the devil, in the person of Nicky Fontana (Hugh Jackman, “X-Men”), a Vegas biggie whose devotion to the dark side is helpfully illustrated by a giant neon sign in his office that says “SIN.”
An early scene in which Ripley strides confidently through his casino-to-be while singing “Viva Las Vegas” isn’t awful, but even if you’re expecting it, the effect is uncomfortable.
For one thing, Owen sort of halfway sings, halfway lip-synchs to the famous Elvis Presley original, as if he’s not sure whether it’s karaoke night or an Elvis impersonator’s competition. For another, he jumps up on a table way too soon in the game, leaving you with the suspicion that there’s a lot more table-jumping where that came from.
And there is, there is. Before you can say “Please allow me to introduce myself,” there’s Jackman half-singing along with Mick Jagger on “Sympathy for the Devil,” in a production number complete with chorus cuties into whose waiting arms he falls backward from - yes! - another table.
Things start to look up during an initially music-free interlude with Melanie Griffith as a shameless tart named Bunny, a woman with a fabulous body and a mouth that brings to mind the line from “The First Wives Club” where Goldie Hawn’s doctor warns her that if he gives her any more collagen, her lips will look like they got stuck in a pool drain.
Griffith - who, like Jackman, plays a recurring rather than a weekly character - is in a class by herself.
Who else could get away with a line like the one Bunny delivers to Ripley, her once and perhaps future lover, about his being more than just “hubby-poo and daddy-da and all that Norman Rockwell crap”?
Actually, I’m not sure Griffith does get away with it. But I prefer her speaking to singing along with Blondie, inevitably, on “One Way or Another.”
A murder is committed, blessedly unaccompanied by music or dancing, and in an unrelated development, Ripley beats up a 42-year-old theater professor who’s dating Ripley’s 18-year-old daughter, one of the prof’s students. Why not just blow the whistle on Prof. Perv and get him fired? Well, for that matter, why jump around on tables when you’ve got a casino to open?
DB Woodside (“24”) and Madchen Amick (“Twin Peaks”) show up as Nicky’s faithful assistant and Ripley’s faithful wife. Neither one gets to sing.
Eventually, the pilot lurches to a close, but not before Ripley announces to an underling that he’s “livin’ the dream,” and, with grim inexorability, shifts into Bachman-Turner Overdrive with “Let It Ride.”
The British Owen is an unusually charismatic actor who comes close to carrying some of this nonsense off. Jackman, one of the show’s executive producers, is as well-known in musical theater circles for “The Boy From Oz” and an “Oklahoma!” revival as he is to a bigger audience for “X-Men” and its sequels.
But they’ve been saddled with an impossible task: bursting into song and striding sexily through banks of slot machines while pretending that either of those things has anything to do with the “mystery drama” around them.
Musical TV dramas are rare but not unheard of. “Viva Laughlin,” as you may have read, is based on a British original, “Viva Blackpool,” that was a hit over there.
But in this case, I don’t think the Americanization is the problem. Despite its popularity, I squirmed through a couple of hours of “Blackpool,” too, when it aired on BBC America.
Golden boy Steven Bochco (“NYPD Blue”) had a notorious flop in 1990 with “Cop Rock,” whose songs were original and whose lifespan was mercifully brief. Maybe you’ve seen one of the better-known excerpts, with a jury breaking into a gospel-flavored “He’s guilty!” Hallelujah, and pass the remote.
I’ve not seen more than a few clips from Dennis Potter’s highly praised BBC miniseries, “Pennies from Heaven” (1978) and “The Singing Detective” (1986), and the unsuccessful movie adaptations of both, which feature actors singing along on vintage recordings of old-fashioned tunes.
For years, those miniseries have been on my short list of TV to catch up with. Having cringed through “Viva Blackpool” and now “Viva Laughlin,” maybe I’ll move Potter to the long list.
After this week’s Thursday premiere, “Viva Laughlin” will move to 8 p.m. EDT Sundays starting Oct. 21.
Fox sent out just a half-hour of highlights from its two-hour opener for “The Next Great American Band,” so I haven’t seen the host’s patter, product placements and other fluff that pads “American Idol.” The highlights, though, look and sound promising.
The supersize debut episode plops several dozen bands - pop, soul, death-metal, bluegrass, newgrass, you name it - onto a helipad outside Las Vegas, where they audition with both an original and a cover. At least a dozen of them really rock.
Who’d have thought a tween boy band called Light of Doom, which cites as its influences “ninjas, boobs and explosions,” would sound so good? Or that Denver & the Mile-High Orchestra, a swing outfit, would kill with that Monkees chestnut, “I’m a Believer”?
I could have done without the cardboard horse’s head, if that’s what it was, worn by the leader of the Dirty Marmaduke Flute Squad, but maybe that’s just me.
Judges Sheila E., John Rzeznik (the Goo Goo Dolls) and Ian “Dicko” Dickson (“Australian Idol”) keep the chit-chat to a minimum, at least in the highlight reel.
The hourlong series, hosted by cutie-pie Dominic Bowden (“New Zealand Idol”), will air weekly at 8 p.m. EDT Friday, with the finale scheduled for Dec. 21.