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Published: 10/18/2007

Over the top 'Laughlin' may be fun while it lasts

BY MIKE KELLY
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE
Hugh Jackman, left, plays the evil Nicky Fontana, and Lloyd Owen is Ripley Holden in the quirky Viva Laughlin. Hugh Jackman, left, plays the evil Nicky Fontana, and Lloyd Owen is Ripley Holden in the quirky Viva Laughlin.
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If you're not planning on doing anything vaguely constructive tonight around 10 o'clock, I have a suggestion: Tune in to the pilot episode of Viva Laughlin, CBS's brave but amazingly weird attempt to break away from the crime-procedural dramas that have been its bread and butter for years. Sure, those CSIs, Criminal Minds, Sharks, and the like have helped gain CBS impressive overall ratings, but younger viewers tend to avoid the "AARP Network" and its dramatic series as if they were a rousing game of Saturday night shuffleboard.

Viva Laughlin, which CBS describes as "a mystery drama with music," is aimed at changing all that. Based on a British TV miniseries called Viva Blackpool, the Americanized version tells the story of Nevada businessman Ripley Holden (played by Lloyd Owen, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles), who sells his chain of convenience stores so he can realize his dream of opening a casino in Laughlin, Nev., south of Las Vegas. Naturally, he runs into all sorts of problems.

But the show's big twist is that, from time to time, various characters break into song, often winding up in the middle of a big production number. Then, when the song is over, they go back to their scene as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

It's a very bizarre thing to watch, kind of like seeing a Broadway musical that's been randomly spliced together with an old episode of NBC's Las Vegas.

Early in the series' pilot episode, as Ripley is striding purposefully through his still-under-construction casino, Elvis Presley's "Viva Las Vegas" suddenly begins to blare, and Ripley joins right in with The King, belting out the lyrics for all he's worth. By the time the song is over, he has also jumped up and danced his way across a couple of craps tables.

Ripley's nemesis is the evil Nicky Fontana (Hugh Jackman, X-Men), who owns his own flashy casino up in Vegas. Nicky is an arrogant creep, and we know he's evil, because as he strides purposefully through his sprawling casino, we're treated to the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy For the Devil," with Nicky singing along for all he's worth. He even wraps things up by falling backwards off a roulette table - or is it blackjack? - into the waiting arms of a gaggle of busty showgirls.

Folks, that's entertainment.

But the best - which is to say, the weirdest - example of the sing-alongs in the show's first episode has to be the sex-tinged duet involving Ripley and Bunny Baxter, played by an aging and scary-looking Melanie Griffith, whose collagen-bloated lips make her look like she's got a big strawberry bagel attached to the lower half of her face.

As Ripley pleads with Bunny for help while trying to dodge her lusty advances, the two sing along fiercely with Blondie's "One Way or Another" ("I'll getcha, I'll getcha getcha getcha getcha ").

Before you're halfway through the premiere episode of this show, a strange, but not entirely unexpected, thing begins to happen. You forget about trying to follow the plot line, such as it is, and instead find yourself just waiting for somebody to suddenly break into song without reason or warning. Will it be a casino cashier? A parking lot attendant? Melanie Griffith's lips?

Viva Laughlin isn't the first dramatic show on American television to toss a little random singing into the mix. Remember Steven Bochco's short-lived 1990 show Cop Rock? Part Hill Street Blues and part Sound of Music, the series actually struck some as being quirky and brilliant, although most viewers just thought it was really stupid.

But at least the songs in Cop Rock were original - and written by Randy Newman, no less. In Viva Laughlin, the characters are singing along to songs that most viewers already know. So is this karaoke? Is it Ashlee Simpson-esque lip-synching? Are these people really singing at all? And does it really matter?

Oh, there are a few other things going on in the pilot episode, too - Ripley's seriously broke, one of his business partners is murdered, his 18-year-old daughter is dating a creepy college professor old enough to be her father - but there's probably no need to concern yourselves with any of that. This show most likely won't be around long enough to resolve any of those issues.

Normally I wouldn't recommend a ridiculous show to readers, but this one is so over the top that you have to see it to appreciate how truly off-kilter it is. That means you'll have to catch it soon (after tonight it's supposed to move to its regular time slot of Sunday night at 8), before CBS realizes what it's done and yanks it from the schedule.

The network can always come up with something to fill the gap. CSI: Laughlin, anyone?



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