Described by press materials as a “mystery drama with music,” CBS's new show, Viva Laughlin, represents an uncomfortable mixture of all three. The show, based on the British show Viva Blackpool, centers around Ripley Holden (Lloyd Owen). Holden is a former convenience store chain owner who has managed to pull together enough money to open a casino in the town of Laughlin… sort of.
Within the first twenty minutes of the pilot, Holden's backer and partner, who had been about to pull his money out of the casino, is murdered. Making matters more complicated for Holden is the fact that Nicky Fontana (Hugh Jackman), a rival casino owner, is aware of Holden's financial problems. Holden mistakenly went to Fontana for help after the funding was pulled but before his backer died. Fontana turned Holden down as he was already aware of Holden's misfortune (and quite possibly helped orchestrate it). Holden's final hope for opening his casino on time may be Bunny (Melanie Griffith), who happens to the be wife of the murdered partner.
The fact that Holden's two children and wife (Mädchen Amick) care deeply for him, want to spend more time with him, and are worried about him doesn't seem to make Holden's life any easier. Holden is an “A-type” personality and needs to succeed. Quite possibly (but this critic doesn't think so), Holden needs to succeed badly enough that he would commit murder.
So, that is the “mystery drama” part of the show. There's also, inexplicably, the music bit. Characters just break out into song here and there in an odd and disturbing way. None of the songs are original music made for the show, and as the character sings the classic tracks are played underneath. Thus, when Hugh Jackman first appears stepping out of a helicopter, his character is introduced singing “Sympathy for the Devil” with the Stones in the background. The show even has a tendency during the pilot to cut away from the character who is singing the song, and there are points, it seems, when only the original track can be heard.
The most often referenced television program, outside of Viva Blackpool, when Viva Laughlin is being discussed is Cop Rock, the hugely unsuccessful (and in some corners) cult favorite that was on television for a half a season in 1990. That show also had characters breaking out into song, but that was original music and featured bigger production numbers than Viva Laughlin. Here, it is all about the characters just sort of singing in a sly, wink-wink, nudge-nudge way to the audience. It might work better in future episodes, but in the pilot the songs felt out of place and entirely gimmicky.
The biggest problem the show may face however is that Hugh Jackman, possibly the biggest draw for the audience, is not a star on the show, he is merely a recurring character. He does serve as executive producer, and will appear as his film schedule allows, but after the first few episodes it may not be that often.
I very much applaud the show's audacity at doing something so far outside the norm. While the first episode was not terribly engaging, the show's pedigree is interesting enough that I will be tuning in to see what happens next.
Viva Laughlin premieres on Thursday October 18 at 10pm before shifting to its regular Sunday 8pm slot on October 21.