Sunday, October 21, 2007

TV: CBS rolls the dice

CBS' new hour long series Viva Laughlin is not an ode to one of TV's most underrated actress. It does end up being an ode to an actress, but before we get there . . .

The hour long show is not supposed to be called a "musical." The word is banned by CBS out of fear that it will run off prospective viewers. That's a bit like Marilyn Monroe disowning dumb blond roles -- what you put on screen is what you'll be judged by and Viva Laughlin works in songs repeatedly.

"Good" reporters agree to build up the "macho." CBS is keeping track of the "friendlies" who find a way to make the series appear Guysville with no jokes along the lines of Guysville After Bathing At Baxters. (One friend at CBS winced at that reference even though he is a Jefferson Airplane fan.) So the "good" are telling you the show revolves around Palooka Joe or at least Bazooka Joe and is swaddled in testosterone or at least sweat.

One of the program's most serious flaws is you see the sweat. Hugh Jackman executive produces the show and plays the lead character's nemeses. The lead character is played by Lloyd Owen. Both break into song repeatedly and it's a huge, huge embarrassment every time it happens.

Jackman gets a big production number in the first episode (aired Friday, the show follows 60 Minutes beginning tonight) with the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil." Not since At Long Last Love has such an awkward musical moment been captured for posterity. On the stage, where Jackman's had some musical success, it might have worked to a degree. The camera would have been far enough away that you might have taken in the production and not noticed how razzle-dazzle "on" the performer looked. Jackman twinkles and viewers are left to wonder who would find Peter Allen threatening?

Those not pondering that will note that, as with most TV shows, the camera work consists mostly of planned close ups mixed with toss the camera anywhere. When musicals were all the rage in the movie industry (many, many decades ago), a director who had to be instructed "Show me the feet!" would have been sent on to other genres quickly. Anyone who can't grasp that dancing means shooting below the hip (or, in the case of Jackman, below the crotch) couldn't steer a musical.

And certainly some will ponder whether anyone involved in the show knows a damn thing about character or music? Should Jackman's character be singing (in what's an interior monologue) that he is the devil? Does he see himself that way? Jackman's fey grins and twinkles seem to suggest delight but on the part of the actor and say nothing about the character. As a general rule, anyone who knows the first thing about music would never utilize the Stones for a showy, celebration set piece. The fact that the darkness of the lyrics never resulted in any qualms about song selection had us wondering if Axel Rose or Belinda Carlisle was serving as the series' musical director -- both have a tendency to come off like fifth graders chirping lyrics they don't comprehend into a hairbrush.

If Jackson's going to be surrounded -- as he is -- in the number with scantily clad women, shouldn't there be some interaction? Instead the women mainly exist to watch Jackman twinkle allowing the viewers to watch the women . . . watching Jackson.

As bad as that set piece is, lead actor Lloyd Owen gets saddled with far worse musical bits. Can he dance? Viewers really don't know. They know he can end a number with Liza Minelli like flourish and the flourish seems especially overdone when he's done nothing to deserve triumphant jubilation at the end. Like Jackman, Owen mainly mumbles along with the lyrics (original recordings are used so you get Jagger, Elvis Presley, etc. blaring out loudly -- like a guide vocal someone mistakenly included in the mix). But where Owen differs from Jackman is that he appears to have heard there was a musical entitled Stomp and thinks that planting a foot down clumsily as he strides makes for musical moments.

Or maybe Jackman twinkled so damn much that an edict was issued that Owen would not even offer the White Man's Overbite and so is instead repeatedly shown clomping forward to music (don't call it walking) or driving while he shifts the gears with what's supposed to be force but really serves to indicate he can't handle a stick shift -- symbolism we won't touch.

As bad as BTO is (and they are very, very bad -- what's next, offerings from the canon of REO Speedwagon?), it's the Presley song that provides the worst musical moment Owen contributes as he sings "Viva Las Vegas" -- again indicating that the song selection is based on something other than character development and the lyrics of a song. For those puzzled -- the show is set in Laughlin, not Vegas. It's a bit like sliding over "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" to Jane Russell as a straight number in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Only once in the entire first episode does the music ever work. Blondie's "One Way Or Another" is pulled out of the mothballs Melissa Joan Hart's use of it on Sabrina might have left it in. It's used as the number when Owen goes to visit a former lover he needs to persuade. The lover is played by Melanie Griffith and, among many other interesting choices Griffith makes, she decides not to whisper along to the number. Her voice actually competes with Debbie Harry's at points. Between that and the fact that the two are seen rolling around in a bed (they don't do the deed) and the appearance that Griffith is actually having fun, the number works.

Griffith's the best thing the show has going for it. That's not a back handed compliment. Griffith was wonderful in Twins and this is her most charming role since Nobody's Fool. She plays Bunny Baxter (we'll address the character names shortly) who slept with the lead even though both are married. Bunny is supposed to sleep around a great deal and, to get an idea of how wonderful Griffith is in the part, pay attention anytime Bunny's being discussed while Griffith's not on camera and you'll hear the sort of misogyny you might have expected to die somewhere around 1975 if not sooner. She's not referred to as desirable, she's called a whore and a cheap one repeatedly. It is a credit to her strong talent that she's turning in a full bodied performance in a role that was written as a cheap joke.

Griffith achieves that because she's not being awkward, she's not constantly fretting (the way Jackman does -- as if he's the lead singer of Maroon Five doing the bit in SNL's "I Ran So Far Away" music video). She's conceived Bunny as a character with no veneers and is flooding the underwritten role to make it something truly amazing whether she's attempting to get Owen in bed or turning on him the minute her husband is murdered by screaming to the police that they need to ask Owen where he was when her husband was murdered.

Owen? The names, ay-yi-yi. Bunny Baxter might seem the sort of label thought up in a trash talk session of the men's locker room at the LA Fitness Sports Club. But names like Ripley (Owen's character) suggest the men's locker room was at Easton Gym on Beverly and several things went down before brainstorming. Think we're making too much of the characters' names? On the first season of Will & Grace, Karen got a drag name: Shu Shu Fontana. Jackman's character is named Nicky Fontana -- which might actually out uu-uu Shu Shu. Need another example? Ripley's teenage son is named Jack Holden to which the only reply in a classroom roll call would be, "You first."

Many moons ago, a TV flavor of the month sent an actual actress and star a mash note from across a crowded club. It said, "You make me feel like James Bond." The actress showed the note to her friends (and has showed it repeatedly since) leading them to all burst into laughter as they hurried out of the club. When "good" reporters work in similar references in their reviews of or articles on Viva Laughlin, we're reminded of that moment. The flavor of the month was gay and who but an intensely closeted gay man would think referencing James Bond was a way to shore up desirability with women?

The same sexual confusion is on display throughout Viva Laughlin. It's a confusion that only grows more intense when "good" reporters try to attest to the show's machismo. In fairness, maybe they're picking up the on set panic that probably results from a hour long, weekly soap opera with music attempting to pass itself off as a Robert Bly men's group?

The only one not in a panic is Griffith and it's why she steals every scene she's in. Bunny is supposed to be a joke, just another piece of gym equipment for the men to pump. Griffith has elected to portray Bunny as a woman who knows what she wants and, in an episode where Owen's Ripley repeatedly begs off sex (both with Bunny and with his wife), it's good to know someone knows what they want.

What this CBS-BBC-Sony hybrid wants is to offer up sparkling manhood. As a decoration. So we see Ripley (who looks like a less attractive Kevin Bacon) emerge from a pool, we see Ripley fondled in bed by his wife (whom he rejects), we Ripley on top of Bunny (whom he rejects), we see Ripley get most passionate about giving his high school son an overpriced car that he hopes will be a sex magnet. The only one having sex in the entire episode is his college attending daughter with (shades of too many weak females) her male college professor. Ripley can and does have a hissy fit over that, eventually punching him. Which begs the question of exactly what is masculinity these days?

Sounding like TV's mythical Jim Anderson but sporting the worst male dye job since Ronald Reagan, he boasts -- in bed no less -- that he wants his adult daughter to always be his "little girl" while at the same time really hoping that the car allows his underage son to 'get some.' That embarrassment drawfs the car issue (which the daughter does raise) and suggests that the creators have re-written another Males Under Attack From Women screed (which is what Bunny would signify in the hands of a less talented actress). But, if you ask us, if there's an attack going on it's one men are launching against themselves.

They want to offer up Owen as eye candy when he's out of the pool and headed inside the house but don't have the guts to really pull that off (he tosses on a robe which he leaves open), they want to offer up production numbers featuring men but don't have the guts to allow the men to really dance, they want to talk a whole lot of sex but don't want the characters to actually have any (Ripley's assault on the college professor is supposed to be endearing) and they want to offer this strange, subtext laden relationship off on two characters whose names would be perfect for a gay porn film (Ripley and Nicky Fontana).

If the cards are stacked against men in this show, that's not about reality, just the men behind the camera confessing to their own sexual panic. While they crap out repeatedly with snake eyes, Griffith steals the show the hard way, by actually bringing to life a fully dimensional character. Like the House in Vegas, the show runners make sure she goes home with only so much: the strongest asset they have is only a recurring character.
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