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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

‘Viva Laughlin’ throws snake eyes

Earlier in the fall I suggested that Viva Laughlin, which debuted last night on CBS, would be the new show “most likely to make me cry and go running to finally buy a region-free DVD player,” because it’s a remake of the BBC miniseries Blackpool (called Viva Blackpool when it aired on BBC America), and American TV has an abysmal record when it comes to remaking British TV.

Well, as it turns out, I decided not to wait and took the region-free plunge not long after that. And I’ve already seen Blackpool (which is not available on DVD in the U.S.). I’m glad I did. Because if I’d seen Viva Laughlin first, I might have decided to skip Blackpool altogether, which would have been a crime: it’s brilliant and thrilling and surprising and original and everything fans of quality TV could possibly hope for. (I’ll have lots to say about Blackpool soon; stay tuned.) Part of why it’s so perfect is that it’s compact: it’s only six hours long, so it can commit to a certain intensity and a willingness to bring itself to a satisfying conclusion.
So, the first of many, many things wrong with Viva Laughlin — there’s nothing right, in fact — is that it has been transformed into an open-ended series in the absurd belief that this is something that could last for five years and a hundred episodes. Blackpool is all about concentrated emotion: ambition, sex, anger, passions that are impossible to maintain over any kind of long term. Blackpool has as urgency to it that is at once tawdry and profound; Laughlin is merely cheap and leaden, like a deflated balloon. The characters haven’t just been taken down a notch — they’ve been stripped of all fervor entirely, which leaves the cast with nowhere to go but up to a screech in their attempts to create feeling where there is none.

The tragic triangle of Blackpool — and, it seems, of Laughlin — consists of Ripley Holden, who’s trying to open a new casino; his wife, Natalie; and cop Peter Carlyle, who comes to investigate a murder at the casino that threatens to bring down the whole project, and perhaps even land Ripley in prison, and stays to fall in love with Natalie. Blackpool simmers with Natalie’s resentment of her husband and his pushy doggedness, with Ripley’s contradictory despair over her pulling away just as he pulls away himself, with Peter’s lightning-struck ardor for Natalie. It’s drenched in sex — not the physical act but in the mind, in lust and love and romance and imagination. The chemistry-free casting in Laughlin, though, drains that all away before it’s had a chance to rev up. (The fact that Laughlin’s regular timeslot will be Sunday at 8pm suggests that the lack of sex is a feature, not a bug.) British actor Lloyd Owen is pretending to be American here as Ripley, and I’d be tempted to call his performance, which is totally free of the charm and menace it requires, a huge part of the reason for Laughlin’s disastrous failure, except that you only need to see what Hollywood has done to David Morrisey, who’s astonishing in the same role in Blackpool, to suspect that it’s not entirely Owen’s fault. Madchen Amick as Natalie and Eric Winter as Peter are so horrifically bland — where Sarah Parrish and David Tennant are so electric — that I may keep tuning in just to see how tone-deaf their affair can be.

Or maybe I’ll just go watch those six hours of Blackpool over and over again. Viva Laughlin is so bad that it ruins Hugh Jackman, as rival casino owner Nicky Fontana (a character new to Laughlin). It ruins Hugh Jackman singing and dancing, which is usually one of the great joys of being alive and on planet Earth in the 21st century. Yeah, this is a musical, with characters breaking into pop songs every one in a while, and where Blackpool got it funky and metaphoric and just right, Laughlin manages to make that clunky and sluggish and obvious. Nicky sings “Sympathy for the Devil” because he’s the villain — get it? Are they kidding us?

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  • Larry

    I thought it was a good show.
    Watching the musical bits was a little uncomfortable for me until I thought, don’t we all have a theme song rolling around in our head?
    It seems to me that “Blackpool” has clouded your judgement some.

  • Drave

    I actually didn’t like Blackpool all that much. Watching Viva Laughlin last night has actually made me appreciate Blackpool in retrospect. Maybe it wasn’t my cup of tea, but it was definitely subtle and interesting, with better acting and complex characters.

    I can’t believe how much they cleaned up Ripley for the American version. I guess they figured Americans wouldn’t be interested in watching a show with a main character who is kind of a scummy bastard. Which begs the question of why they remade it in the first place.

    Did you get the feeling that the guy playing Peter was the only one who actually watched the original show? Because I think I caught quite a number of Tennant’s mannerisms badly mimicked by him. Sorry, dude. You can’t mug like David Tennant unless you have David Tennant’s mug.

  • Caroline

    I decided to give VIVA Laughlin a try because I was SO impressed with the original Blackpool. I am pleased to hear that you will be reviewing that soon, cause it is really well made. The characters pop to life and there is instant chemistry. Which made me even more let down when I watched this first episode. I thought that they would be able to translate some of the magic of Blackpool.
    I can see where they are trying SO HARD to make the show last. I didnt like that they added extra characters and changed some of the plot lines. I knew that they wouldn’t be able to stretch the story without making some additions but I didnt think they would resort to subtractions.
    In VIVA Laughlin Ripley seemed to be half asleep and in no way resembled the lethario from Blackpool. I was impressed that the actor playing Peter caught on to oral fixation that is so monumental to the character.
    Needless to say, I will probably give VIVA Laughlin another try…. just cause I want to see if they can capture ANY of the feeling of the original.
    Wishing I had a region-free DVD player… or that I lived in the UK!

  • I decided to completely avoid this one… I’m also dreading the Life on Mars remake.

    I really wish US networks would give the British model a try: do a 6-13 episode run, go on to something else. If it did well, do another series of 6-13 episodes. This would give low rated series a chance to play out their story arc (WB gave Birds of Prey that opportunity when it was canceled mid-season, but that rarely happens) and give successful programs the ability to sustain quality episodes for many years (The BBC’s Last of the Summer Wine, while not a favorite of mine, comes to mind…)

  • Yeah, ditto. Not one thing you said surprises me in the slightest. Thank you for watching it so I don’t have to!

  • Betty Girl

    I watched the show Friday night and was thoroughly entertained. It was an enjoyable refreshing change from the crime/lawyer/medical dramas that seem to be taking up most of the airwaves anymore. Hugh Jackman was great and it was nice to see D.B. Woodside, too. It was an hour of fun and they set a good storyline that I will tune in again to find out what’s happening. It was entertaining with a “retro” feeling to it of good old shows that are long gone. I’m not sure how I feel about the singing yet, only time will tell! I’ll be tuning in for more to find out!

  • MaryAnn

    Betty Girl sounds like a studio troll, doesn’t she?

    It seems to me that “Blackpool” has clouded your judgement some.

    Yes. Much in the same way that, say, a piece of dark chocolate Godiva clouds my judgment and highlights how a piece from a box of Whitman Sampler tastes like shit.

  • Poly

    Apparently Viva Laughlin ghas been cancelled.
    Which is very fast no matter how you look at it.

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