CBS Should Make a Bigger Creative Bet on 'Viva Laughlin'

Media Reviews for Media People

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NEW YORK ( -- With the fall season upon us, Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg casts a critical eye on some of TV's new and continuing series to help marketers determine which may be the best showcases for their ads and products. Tonight at 10 p.m., CBS premieres one of the more ambitious shows on its fall schedule, "Viva Laughlin," a singing and dancing drama set in a gambling town. The first episode tonight seems aimed a getting audiences from "CSI" and "Survivor: China" to sample the Hugh Jackman-produced show. Its usual slot will be Sunday nights at 8 p.m.
'Viva Laughlin' stars Hugh Jackman, left, and Lloyd Owen
'Viva Laughlin' stars Hugh Jackman, left, and Lloyd Owen Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

"Viva Laughlin"

Where and when you'll see it: CBS, Sundays at 8 p.m.

What you'll see: Music is in the air, but not the fiber, of "Viva Laughlin." The show, in which actors sing along to contemporary music, is either a song-and-dance showstopper about the vicissitudes of the Vegas-wannabe lifestyle or a poorly plotted hour filled with distracting musical interludes that add little to its potboiler plot or its flashy milieu.

Ripley Holden (Lloyd Owen) has traded in his valuable convenience-store empire for a shot at building a big casino in bee-yoo-ti-ful Laughlin, Nevada, about 129 miles outside Las Vegas. He's crippled when one of his investors pulls out and he's forced to make nice with his rival, Nicky Fontana (Hugh Jackman), and Marcus (DB Woodside), his aide-de-camp. Along the way, he has to coddle his beautiful but neglected wife (Madchen Amick) and walk a thin line with his investor's wife (a surreal Melanie Griffith).

Ripley is always ready to gamble, and Mr. Owen's infectious spirit can, at times, usher viewers past the many potholes in "Laughlin": a helter-skelter plot; clunky dialogue; and -- oh, yes -- those half-hearted song-and-dance routines, a bid CBS says is meant to "accentuate the drama and humor and to advance the story."

The trouble: The characters simply sing along to the original song -- and sometimes not even for very long. It's not particularly revelatory for Hugh Jackman to sing the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" as a way to tell audiences that, no, he's not really a nice guy. Likewise, it's silly for Ripley to croon along to Elvis' "Viva Las Vegas" to establish for viewers the idea that he's ready to take a swing at the casino lifestyle. And a duet between Mr. Owen and Ms. Griffith on Blondie's "One Way or Another" may just be the can-miss scene of the 2007-08 TV season. Meanwhile, there are still Ripley's financial issues and family troubles to wend one's way through. The musical scenes leave less time for setting up a solid story line or devising crisp bons mots.

Ultimately, "Laughlin" doesn't go far enough. The songs don't really tell us anything about the characters we can't figure out for ourselves, and the tunes interrupt rather than accentuate the action. Also puzzling: With Hugh Jackman's well-established musical theater chops, why not let him go full-blast and sing and dance to his heart's content?

A TV show in the form of a musical is an unlikely prospect and destined to spark jokes about "Cop Rock," the 1990 ABC drama from Steven Bochco that mixed crime solving and show tunes to ill effect. Since that time, however, musical dramas have generated some positive notice, including a 2001 episode of "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" that recently made its way into midnight showings at movie theaters. "Scrubs" and "Ally McBeal" also tested this gambit. And Broadway starlet Kristin Chenoweth is being used to great effect this year on "Pushing Daisies," the surreal drama that has already let her sing her way through a scene.

Based on the BBC drama "Viva Blackpool," CBS's "Laughlin" deserves credit for trying something other than the cookie-cutter procedural hum-drum that has become the backbone of most dramas on the Tiffany Network. But "Laughlin" can't decide if it wants to be a glitzy, Broadway-ish look at the life of a man who gambles with money, love and family or a CBS drama that's palatable for the masses. If you want to try something new and avant-garde, you have to be willing to leave some of the audience behind.

What's at stake: CBS has fared extraordinarily well by relying on procedural dramas ranging from "Cold Case" to "Without A Trace" to the "CSI" franchise. But it has less luck with and tolerance for quirkier efforts, such as the dark ensemble comedy "The Class" or the single-guy-in-the-music-industry drama "Love Monkey." If "Viva Laughlin" is a success, it would give CBS a toehold in the kind of off-kilter programming that draws a devoted fan base and also give it a good lead-in on ultra-competitive Sunday night, when Fox has male-skewing comedies and ABC has its powerhouse, female-oriented fare.

Who's onboard: CBS's top sponsors are advertisers looking for broad audiences. Procter & Gamble, General Motors, AT&T, GlaxoSmithKline and Johnson & Johnson turn to CBS for big swaths of consumers, so the network does face some pressure to run shows that meet those needs.

Your ad here? "Laughlin" packages musical numbers with an emerging murder mystery and domestic woes. In short, it's a flashy kaleidoscope of a program probably best suited for movie studios, fast-food marketers and telecommunications players. If it takes off, and the musical numbers and family plots continue, package-goods advertisers might take more notice.

Media buyer's verdict: It's no secret that "Laughlin" will have to belt it out to get noticed. The question is whether the experimental musical interludes combined with the casino antics will strike a sweet chord or a sour note with viewers. "Music always plays a key role in a lot of programming, but when it's so in the forefront, part of the script, it's going to be an interesting twist," said Steve Kalb, senior VP-broadcast at Interpublic Group's Mullen agency in Wenham, Mass. While buyers give CBS "an A for effort," he added, Sunday at 8 p.m. seems like a too-early roost for an experimental drama. "I'm kind of waiting to see" reaction to the program, Mr. Kalb said.
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