Thursday, October 18, 2007

Viva Laughlin is Worth a Gamble
Let’s get this facetious comparison out of the way up front. Viva Laughlin is nothing like the ill-fated and poorly titled Cop Rock from a few years ago. Viva Laughlin brings a smile to my face. Cop Rock, even at its best two moments, only made me cringe.

That said, forget about all the “mystery drama with music” hype surrounding Viva Laughlin. To appreciate this series, you’re going to have to suspend disbelief just a wee bit and accept it as the lark it is.
Loosely adapted from the BBC series Viva Blackpool, Viva Laughlin chronicles the adventures of Ripley Holden (Lloyd Owen) and his quest to open a casino in Laughlin, Nevada. Things are going swimmingly until his business partner suddenly withdraws funding, forcing Holden to turn to his arch-rival Nicky Fontana (Hugh Jackman) for help. Matters are further complicated when Holden’s business partner turns up murdered, leaving him as a prime suspect. That Holden has some sort of past with the dead man’s widow, Bunny (Melanie Griffith) doesn’t help Holden.

Meanwhile, Holden’s home life is a bit thorny. His wife Natalie (Madchen Amick) craves a more stable life and a bit more attention. His daughter Cheyenne, all of eighteen, is dating her 42-year old college professor. Son Jack wants to help his father fulfill his dream, even at personal cost. Throw in the obligatory handsome detective (Eric Winter) investigating the murder, and who finds himself attracted to Natalie, add Fontana’s slithery point man Marcus (DB Woodside) and you have all the necessary ingredients for an old-fashioned potboiler.

Admittedly, all of this has been done before, and it’s not the stuff of compelling drama. But that’s not the goal of Viva Laughlin. What the producers (one of whom is Jackman) are doing here is utilizing the time-worn plot devices of basic noir, turning them inside out and sending them to us with a nod and a wink to musical comedy. That’s not to say the series is a musical by any means, but the characters do, at key plot points, tend to sing along, karaoke style, with the background soundtrack. Ripley has a fondness for “Viva Las Vegas” as he makes his financing rounds. The Fontana character is introduced to the strains of “Sympathy for the Devil.”

As strange as it sounds, it’s these little musical moments that make the pilot work. Sure, they border on the hokey, unless, that is, you view them as the absent-minded wanderings of the characters’ thoughts as they go about their business. The musical numbers represent the fantasial workings of the mind when viewed in that context, and actually serve to drive the otherwise thin storyline.

Whether American audiences are willing to accept a series that veers from conventional storytelling to take stylistic risks remains to be seen. Already, some circles are dismissing Viva Laughlin as the worst of the new seasons’ crop. (Those people have not attempted to sit through an episode of Cave Men.) Whether Viva Laughlin can integrate music into the storyline without it becoming forced or stale also remains to be seen.

Either way, Viva Laughlin (airing tonight on CBS, 10 PM, ET/PT, before beginning its regular run Sunday) is worth a look. It’s a fun pilot, painted in comic book colors that call up the winner takes it spirit of Nevada.