The biggest surprise about Viva Laughlin, CBS’s new “mystery drama with music,” is that the singing and dancing isn’t the worst thing about it. Still, that is bad enough. Even when you’re on Broadway, interrupting a story with a ditty and a little soft shoe is always a dicey proposition, and this show compounds the weirdness by ditching the traditional concept of a musical for something more akin to dramatic karaoke. These guys don’t belt out their own tunes, they sing along with songs. Popular ones, like “Viva Las Vegas,” crooned by casino owner Ripley Holden (Lloyd Owen). And “Sympathy for the Devil,” cued up when Ripley decides to take a meeting with his nemesis, a fellow mogul with another only-on-TV name, Nicky Fontana.
“Please allow me to introduce myself / I’m a man of wealth and taste,” Fontana sings -– accompanying Mick Jagger, remember—after getting out of a helicopter in a shiny suit. He then struts into his casino, parting a sea of cooing dancing girls, jumps on a roulette table, and raises his eyebrows when he gets to the part about “lay[ing] your soul to waste / Oom yeah!” Onlookers watch without expression, as if they’re waiting for the guy to finish up a conversation.
Did I mention that Fontana is played by Hugh Jackman?
Jackman is also one of the Max Bialystocks behind Viva Laughlin, which is based on a six-episode British series, Blackpool. As often happens, things went awry somewhere in the translation. Blackpool wasn’t Cop Rock, with solemn situations accompanied by earnest -– and, worse, original and terribly written -– songs. The series isn’t available on Region 1 DVD, but watch any clip on YouTube and you’ll get a sense of the show’s appeal: despite the fact that it was fundamentally a murder mystery, it didn’t take itself very seriously. Star David Morrissey had sideburns, bad hair, and a slightly goofy way about him when he was dancing and singing on tabletops; the musical numbers, when not poignant, were infectiously silly and joyful. Good whodunits and good sing-alongs tend to be irresistible, and the creators of Blackpool combined the two without appearing like crackpots devising the next Springtime for Hitler.
The Viva Laughlin premiere is at least that awful. Owen, a British actor best known for appearing in the 2006 film Miss Potter, is a cocky son of a bitch, and not in a sexy Hugh Laurie kind of way. When he tries to pull off the kind of nerdy-parent joshing that The O.C.‘s Peter Gallagher was so good at, it’s just atrocious. Admittedly, he’s working with poor material. In the opening scene, Ripley roars into the kitchen in his casino-fab white jacket and wishes his son, Jack (Carter Jenkins), a happy birthday. When Jack reminds him that his birthday was two weeks ago, Ripley playfully replies, “Yeah, well, tick-tock, tick-tock. All good things come to he who waits!” Ripley’s Stepford wife, Natalie (Madchen Amick), points out that their daughter, Cheyenne (Ellen Woglom), is on the phone with a new boyfriend, whereupon Ripley asks, “Is this one human, or is he like all the others?” Huh?
The plot adheres to the premise of British series. Ripley’s about to open a casino hotel when one of his investors drops out. His options are either sweet-talking an old flame, Bunny Baxter (Melanie Griffith), who happens to be the wife of said investor, or offering Nicky Fontana a share. Neither of these works, but before the day is through, the former investor is found dead. Bunny’s hysterical and points the finger at Ripley in front of an apparently 12-year-old cop, Peter Carlyle (Eric Winter). (“Who were you with last night?” Ripley counterattacks. To which Griffith’s Bunny tearfully responds, “I was with my yoga teacher!” Good stuff.) So Peter starts tracking Natalie in hope of getting dirt on Ripley, very creepily walking up to her SUV as she’s pulling out of the driveway and later pretending to run into her at a grocery store, making small talk that’s not at all suspicious such as “So, you’re not looking as happy today. What’s up?”
Viva Laughlin is at its worst when it goes seems like “intensity.” This version is skimpy melodrama with more bad dialogue. Ripley and Natalie tuck in one night, and he’s a little quiet. “Would you believe a headache?” Ripley asks. “I’d believe secrets!” his wife harrumphs before turning over. The next day, at the scene of the murder, he peals away from a just-arriving Natalie in his hot rod for no reason; she yells out, “Ripley! Ripley!” (Are you getting sick of the name yet? She uses it a lot.) The lazy-writing prize, though, goes to a scene in which the two have a by-the-numbers argument about his career choice. If you can’t predict that Ripley won’t soon shout the line, “I am doing the best I can for this family!” you haven’t watched enough television.
The most egregious number, though, is set to Bachman, Turner Overdrive’s “Let It Ride.” Ripley sings the chorus like a superhero as he stomps into Fontana’s casino to make a bet. It’s also montage time, so the interlude serves as a recap, featuring Natalie, who appears every time the line “And would you cry” is sung, and guess what she’s doing. Weep, dear Madchen, for your career, for Jackman’s reputation, for all of us who have spent an hour gawking at a train wreck.