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Casino drama bets on songs to add pop

Lloyd Owen (right) and Hugh Jackman work at rival casinos in 'Viva Laughlin,' a new crime drama that has its characters occasionally bursting into song. Lloyd Owen (right) and Hugh Jackman work at rival casinos in "Viva Laughlin," a new crime drama that has its characters occasionally bursting into song. (Robert Voets/CBS)

The TV hills are alive with the sound of music. Vocals soar on soundtracks all over prime time, while Boston lawyers in love break up to make up and Seattle doctors watch as love lies bleeding in their hands. But very few shows feature characters who sing, unless they're about a guy who's just a singer in a rock 'n' roll band.

So CBS's "Viva Laughlin" arrives as a rarity, since its characters do occasionally burst into a decent melody. The songs remain the same as the famous recorded versions - tonight's episode includes "Sympathy for the Devil" by the Rolling Stones and "Viva Las Vegas" by Elvis Presley - but the actors croon along as if the songs are playing loudly on the air, on the radio. And so even though "Viva Laughlin" is a crime drama, it feels so different from everything else on TV, although fans of "The Singing Detective" and "Pennies From Heaven," both Dennis Potter dramas with song and dance, will be somewhat familiar with the approach.

Based on the British miniseries "Black pool," "Viva Laughlin" focuses on Ripley Holden (Lloyd Owen), who sells his convenience-store chain to take his slice of American pie - a casino of tumbling dice in Laughlin, Nev. But one of his major investors withdraws his money before construction on the casino is finished, then winds up dead.

Whodunit? Was it the vulgar widow, played by Melanie Griffith with lips like a volcano? She sings "One Way or Another" in an overdone duet with Ripley that's not gonna getcha excited. Was it a rival casino honcho (played, in a recurring role, by Hugh Jackman) or maybe his goon (DB Woodside) trying to frame Ripley?

Or was it Ripley, who is stressed out over finances, having put up all that money for nothing? Ripley's family life also isn't solid as a rock. For one thing, his 19-year-old daughter Cheyenne (Ellen Woglom) is dating her 42-year-old professor, and Ripley has told her she can't see him anymore. And Ripley's wife, Natalie (Madchen Amick), is increasingly unhappy with her marriage and has befriended a cop, who's using her to help solve the crime.

"Viva Laughlin" is an odd duck, for sure. Some of the musical sequences have power, as they use classic pop songs to establish mood quickly. Jackman, who is also one of the show's executive producers, delivers his "Sympathy for the Devil" sequence with a minimum of footwork and yet an appealing sense of drama. The idea of having the actors sing along with the songs (like some of us do while driving) works, because it brings the meaning of the songs right into the scenes.

But the story line on "Viva Laughlin" has a superficial quality. With a onetime musical or miniseries, that simplicity can work, but a full-length series calls out for detail and development. The British version of "Viva Laughlin" was a lot more vivid and textured. Also, the British Ripley (played by David Morrissey) was a darker figure who struggled between good and evil, honesty and lying. He was more engaging. So far, Owen's Ripley is too cheery and optimistic, not the type you expect in a world where shady characters thrive.

I don't predict a long future for this experiment, which will move to its regular Sunday time slot after tonight's special preview. It's just not an attention grabber, despite its musical gimmick. Ultimately, it doesn't provide enough satisfaction.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

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Viva Laughlin

Starring: Lloyd Owen, Madchen Amick, Hugh Jackman

On: CBS, Channel 4

Time: Tonight, 10-11

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