Maybe there are already enough TV shows set in Las Vegas. We’ve got CSI and Las Vegas and various reality shows, and perhaps the narrative possibilities of Sin City have been exhausted, at least as far as TV producers are concerned. How else to explain how Laughlin became the setting for the new series Viva Laughlin (CBS, Sundays, 8 p.m.; premieres October 18 at 10 p.m.)? Proving that Elko might yet have its day in the TV sun, Laughlin transports the typical Vegas TV tropes to a small-town setting, where casino owner Ripley Holden (Lloyd Owen) is just getting ready to open his first property (called Viva).
Holden runs into a bit of trouble when an investor who just pulled out of the casino winds up dead in his office—as if he didn’t already have enough to deal with thanks to his college-student daughter (attending the University of Laughlin, maybe?) dating one of her professors, his marriage slowly falling apart and his slimy rival (producer Hugh Jackman, set to make periodic appearances) plotting his downfall. Oh, and every so often the characters break into song.
Yes, Viva Laughlin is the first musical drama series on American TV since Cop Rock, although unlike Steven Bochco’s much-maligned police drama, Laughlin doesn’t feature its cast members singing original tunes. Instead, it has them sing along to vintage recordings of popular music—mostly recognizable classic-rock staples, at least if the first episode is anything to go on. This technique is taken from Viva Blackpool, the BBC series on which Laughlin is based, and has a bit of an established history in Britain thanks to Dennis Potter, who used the same technique in his acclaimed miniseries The Singing Detective and Pennies From Heaven.
But for this technique to work, there has to exist a sort of heightened, off-kilter sense of reality, and whenever the characters aren’t singing Laughlin is a boring and conventional melodrama. The musical numbers add nothing to the plot or character development, and the song choices don’t necessarily jibe with what’s happening in the story (Holden drives through town singing “Viva Las Vegas” why?). British actor Owen is dull and charisma-free as Holden, a fact unfortunately amplified by the appearance of musical-theater ace Jackman, who brings more charm and magnetism to his handful of scenes than Owen does to the entire show. Entering singing along to “Sympathy for the Devil,” Jackman vamps through a seductive dance number that’s the sole highlight of the dreary first episode.
Melanie Griffith shows up, too, looking more and more like a RealDoll with every onscreen appearance, but even she can’t make her campy sexpot character endearing, or generate any heat with Owen when they duet on Blondie’s “One Way or Another.” At least Griffith and Jackman have the gusto to play the material for exactly how silly it is—the rest of the cast just plod through like they’re on an inexplicably musical episode of CSI.
Even CSI has a better grasp of Nevada culture, and that speaks to just how false and unreal Laughlin comes across. Not false and unreal in an exciting, mind-bending way, either—just confused, misguided and about as far away from what it should be as Laughlin is from Vegas.