Fortunately for CBS, most of its audience hasn’t seen “Viva, Blackpool” and thus won’t realize how pallid this Americanized version is by comparison. Using karaoke-style renditions of popular songs as characters sing along with the artists, the BBC show was a musical/murder mystery/family drama, cleverly unfolding over six weeks. In adapting those basic elements, the producers here fail to fully commit to the musical component, unimaginatively staging numbers that simply involve an evolution of the Aaron Sorkin-Thomas Schlamme walk-and-talk model to walk-and-sing. Credit CBS for finally attempting something more ambitious than “CSI: Laughlin,” but alas, the applause ends there.
Hugh Jackman is among the project’s exec producers, and while his cameo in the revised pilot (a recurring role) provides a jolt of star power, the net effect helps underscore only how charisma-challenged the show’s regular leading man, Lloyd Owen, turns out to be.
Owen plays Ripley Holden, who has cashed in a successful chain of retail stores to fulfill his dream of opening a casino in Laughlin, Nevada, sauntering through the still-unfinished venue to the jaunty strains of Elvis Presley’s “Viva, Las Vegas.”
Ripley’s best-laid plans, however, quickly start to unravel, as a major investor withdraws his money, only to turn up dead. Now Ripley’s vulnerable not only to the takeover schemes of a ruthless casino mogul (Jackman) but under investigation by a young cop (Eric Winter), who decides that cozying up to Ripley’s wife Natalie (Madchen Amick) might be his best (or at least best-looking) avenue into solving the case.
Showcasing his credentials as a song-and-dance man, Jackman splashily makes his entrance to the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” but even the modest choreography in that sequence feels slightly flat. Then again, that scene represents a significant improvement over the other lackluster numbers — a half-assed pas de deux between Ripley and the dead man’s widow (Melanie Griffith) set to Blondie’s “One Way or Another,” and another stroll through the casino to Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Let It Ride” — which do little to take advantage of those high-energy tunes.
Where “Blackpool” completely embraced the giddy fantasy of these scenes, yielding a kind of infectious quality, “Laughlin” goes through the motions with one foot on the floor. Nor does the pilot, written by Bob Lowry (“Huff,” and no, we’re not related), make much use of the Holden kids — teenager Jack (“Surface’s” Carter Jenkins) or college student Cheyenne (Ellen Woglom), who’s dating her much older professor.
Much has been made of CBS departing from its tried-and-true crime formula by developing “Laughlin,” the upcoming “Swingtown” and to a lesser degree “Cane,” but initially, the network has placed this bet while still playing it safe — as if somebody suddenly remembered “Cop Rock” and panicked midway through the process.
“Viva Laughlin” is receiving a Thursday preview before taking up residence Sundays at 8 — a potentially fertile plot of real estate where CBS was wise to take a shot. If only the show itself exhibited the same gambler’s mentality.