Sing for the Money

Photo: Robert Voetes/Courtesy of CBS

Viva Laughlin asks us to root for Ripley Holden (Lloyd Owen), a pink-cheeked and star-spangled showtime dreamer who has sold a chain of convenience stores to bankroll his very own casino in Laughlin, Nevada. Of course, such innocent ambition is bound to be besieged on all sides—in this case by a rival casino owner (Hugh Jackman), a merrily mercenary widow (Melanie Griffith), a hood-for-hire with his own agenda (DB Woodside), and a Laughlin police detective (Eric Winter) determined to frame Ripley for the murder of his ex-partner. All the while, Ripley must contend with his teenage daughter, Cheyenne (Ellen Woglom), who is dating a college professor with a goatee. As if afraid we’ll nod off, every now and again somebody on Viva Laughlin bursts into a karaoke-esque sing-along, like a dwarf in Disney or a pirate in Penzance. And since these somebodies include Jackman and Griffith, we are all ears—at least for a couple of weeks of dress rehearsal.

You know what comes next. After dispensing with the requisite news items—Viva Laughlin is based on the Brit hit Viva Blackpool; Jackman, who sings “Sympathy for the Devil” in the pilot, will only show up between movie gigs; and executive producer (and Huff creator) Bob Lowry seems to have been relieved of his writing duties after the completion of the pilot—we will be forced to confront the issue of all that singing. I’ll have to talk about Dennis Potter and The Singing Detective. After which we will agree to disagree about Steve Bochco’s ill-fated Cop Rock. And maybe there will be room left over to discuss the song-and-dance episode—ten years ago this week!—of the hospital series Chicago Hope. But I begin by asking: Is there something hardwired in the rhinencephalon, in that reptilian substratum of the Homo sap brain where we hold our noses, that predisposes the prime-time television audience to appreciate American Idol while it disdains musical drama?

More than Potter’s Singing Detective, actually, Viva Laughlin resembles Potter’s Pennies From Heaven, and especially the 1981 Hollywood version, in which Steve Martin’s Arthur, a sheet-music salesman, lip-synchs his way through a Great Depression illustrated by Edward Hopper and Reginald Marsh. When Ripley in Laughlin opens his mouth to sing, he might as well be Arthur in Chicago. What comes out is the great American longing for money and romance, for rainbows, dreamworlds, and stardom. E.L. Doctorow explained in City of God that such pop standards as “Me and My Shadow” and “Dancing in the Dark” are our secular hymns. That probably goes for Elvis too.

We may not approve of what he does with his money or his children, but Ripley is a believer. I’d like to believe right along with him, at least for a chorus or two. Besides, Melanie Griffith hasn’t had so much narcissistic fun since Milk Money. But I’m a sucker for this stuff: I never saw any reason why cops—otherwise seen falling off wagons, roughing up suspects, sleeping with perps, lying on the witness stand, and eating doughnuts—shouldn’t have burst into song when Bochco let them. And when the crazy cutups on Chicago Hope used the occasion of an Adam Arkin aneurysm to break into syncopated surgery, did you notice, as I did, that the name of the surgeon in this “operating theater” was Dr. Denise Potter? In fact, I can think of very few artifacts of modern life, from a Supreme Court decision to an HMO policy, that wouldn’t be improved by turning them into musicals. Reading Hermione Lee’s interview with Philip Roth the other week in The New Yorker, it occurred to me how wonderful such give-and-take would play on a musical stage (picture, say, Rent), with comic turns by Zuckerman and Portnoy, soulful ballads by Edith Wharton and Joseph Conrad, and a Franz Kafka soft-shoe.

Viva Laughlin
CBS. Premieres October 18 at 10 p.m. Sundays at 8.

Sing for the Money