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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2007-2008 season. Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere this season and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot. While it's still a little early for full reviews (some recasting and reshooting will be done on a good chunk of them), we still want to give you a heads up on what you should - and shouldn't - keep on your radar in the coming months.
And as an added bonus this year, each day we'll also take a look at one of the pilots that didn't make the cut. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!
VIVA LAUGHLIN (CBS)
(Sundays at 8:00/7:00c this fall)
The network's description: "Executive produced by Tony and Emmy Award winner Hugh Jackman ("The Boy from Oz," "X-Men"), VIVA LAUGHLIN is a mystery drama with music about eternal optimist and freewheeling businessman Ripley Holden, whose sole ambition is to run a casino in Laughlin, Nev. Occasionally using upbeat contemporary songs to accentuate the drama and humor and advance the story, the series is based on the hit BBC show "Viva Blackpool." Ripley (Lloyd Owen, "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles") is the ultimate gambler with an infectious personality who is on the brink of making a killing... just as soon as he opens his casino that's nowhere near completion. When his financing suddenly falls through, the fearless and tenacious Ripley approaches his enemy - dashing, sarcastic, wealthy casino owner Nicky Fontana (Hugh Jackman) for help. Though the odds are stacked against him, Ripley doesn't miss a beat, even when he becomes embroiled in a murder investigation after the body of his ex-business partner is found at his club. At home, Ripley uses his dry wit to adjust to the demands of his family: his gorgeous wife, Natalie (Madchen Amick, "ER"), wants more attention; his teenage daughter, Cheyenne (Ellen Woglom, "The O.C."), wants his approval; and his son, Jack (Carter Jenkins, "Surface"), wants to help him at work. All of this adversity would defeat a lesser man, but for the outgoing and passionate Ripley there's no such thing as bad news, only deals to be struck and wagers to be won in the intoxicating neon glow of Laughlin, where the cards are on the table, romance is in the air and lively music is on the stage. Eric Winter ("Wildfire") and D.B. Woodside ("24") also star. Directed by Gabriele Muccino ("The Pursuit of Happyness"). Golden Globe Award nominee Hugh Jackman, John Palermo ("X-Men: The Last Stand"), Bob Lowry ("Huff"), Paul Telegdy and Peter Bowker ("Viva Blackpool") are executive producers for BBC Worldwide Productions, Seed Productions, CBS Paramount Network Television in association with Sony Pictures Television."
What did they leave out: There's a handful of musical numbers, including one by guest star/executive producer Hugh Jackman.
The plot in a nutshell: Ripley Holden (Lloyd Owen) is in a good mood. He's just sold his successful convenience store chain to help finance his lifelong dream of owning a hotel/casino in Laughlin, Nevada, about 129 miles south of Las Vegas. In fact, he's in such a good mood - he's going to sing along to Elvis Presley's "Viva Las Vegas." Nevertheless bad news is around the corner as Buddy Baxter (apologies as I didn't recognize the actor), one of his investors, announces he's going to pull out his 25% stake and instead invest in wind farms. That leaves Ripley with just two weeks to come up with the million dollars he's going to need to actually finish construction. His only options then are to seek help from Buddy's wife Bunny (a scenery chewing Melanie Griffith), who just happens to be his old flame, and Nicky Fontana (Hugh Jackman), a rival casino owner. Both result in subsequent musical numbers and even more bad news for Ripley - Bunny won't help unless he resumes their previous relationship and Nicky won't help because he plans to buy out Ripley's casino once his loans default (but he'll keep Ripley on as manager if he wants). And just when things can't get any worse - Buddy goes and gets himself murdered, leaving Ripley the prime suspect. But wait, there's more: Ripley's family life is also a mess - his wife Natalie (Madchen Amick) isn't too fond of his new business venture and his 18-year-old daughter Cheyenne (Ellen Woglom) is dating someone twice her age. Thankfully, his son Jack (Carter Jenkins) proves to be his staunchest supporter, but that may be because Jack just bought him a sports car for his 16th birthday. Also thrown into the mix are D.B. Woodside as Nicky's bodyguard, who also happens to be having an affair with Bunny; and Eric Winter as a police detective who tries to cozy up to Natalie in order to get the dirt on Ripley. In the end, it's good old fashioned Vegas (or Laughlin) luck that saves the day for Ripley... and some more singing.
What works: Believe it or not, I kind of dug the show's musical numbers. I mean, don't get me wrong the Bunny/Ripley duet set against Blondie's "One Way Or Another" is a complete train wreck, but Jackman ("Sympathy For The Devil") and Owen's ("Viva Las Vegas") solo numbers are a lot of fun. Plus, you've got to respect a show that has the balls in today's doom-and-gloom TV universe to say - "You know what dammit, our characters are going to sing!" Now if only it wasn't...
What doesn't: ...such a boring, one-dimensional show. All of the characters are paper thin while the show's central murder mystery plot doesn't add much meat to the recipe. It's literally - Ripley, good; Nicky, bad; let's watch them growl at each other! Said formula wouldn't be so bad if the musical numbers were the centerpiece of the show but truth be told they're not, even to the point that a viewer blindly coming in might feel like they're actually tacked on. Instead they're treated as pseudo-commercial breaks from the action, further exposing the lack of fun in between them. Even worse is that it completely undercuts the show's "only on TV" finale, which sees Ripley literally betting it all, not once but twice, on a roulette spin. If this were a fanciful universe were people randomly broke into song, I might have bought it. But as it stands, it's a universe where lots of talking heads discuss money - Natalie worries about it, Ripley needs it, Nicky takes it, Bunny holds it over Ripley, etc. - intercut with the occasional musical number. All in all, I kind of wish the show didn't hold back the fun.
The bottom line: It'll probably turn out to be the show that has the most split opinions about it and mine isn't leaning toward the hopeful side.