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maryann johanson | #BlackLivesMatter

‘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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