THE FO­RUM

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - KER­RIE MUR­PHY on de­grees of bad­ness Il­lus­tra­tion: Michael Perkins

VIVA Laughlin may well be the worst new show of the sea­son, but is it the worst show in the his­tory of television?’’ asked The New York Times TV critic Alessan­dra Stan­ley in the open­ing of her re­view of the short- lived show. Her ver­dict: quite pos­si­bly. This demon­strates that while the news­pa­per may well be the jour­nal of record, it’s clearly not spend­ing enough time watch­ing TV. Sure, Viva Laughlin , a mu­si­cal dram­edy about a man open­ing a casino, was cliched and badly acted, with poor di­a­logue, but so are half the shows on the box.

It’s not as if Viva Laughlin were You’re in the Pic­ture , a US quiz show that lasted one episode back in 1961. Celebrity con­tes­tants stuck their heads through those painted scenes you get at fun fairs and guessed the sce­nario by ask­ing ques­tions. If they were right, 100 CARE Pack­ages were do­nated in their name. Wrong and they were do­nated in host Jackie Glea­son’s name, which was al­tru­is­tic but also low­ered the stakes some­what.

The first 30- minute episode was so bad, the en­tire fol­low­ing week’s times­lot was given over to Glea­son, who sim­ply sat on a stool apol­o­gis­ing for the show. Not even the Ten Net­work, which screened last year’s dis­as­trous Yas­min’s Get­ting Mar­ried , felt com­pelled to do that.

The idea of a worst TV show ever is al­ways sub­jec­tive, but it takes some­thing spe­cial for a show to rise above, or fall be­low, the crowded field of pedes­trian pro­gram­ming to en­ter into con­tention.

There are those who ar­gue cer­tain gen­res au­to­mat­i­cally qual­ify as a to­tal suck­fest, sniff­ing: ‘‘ Oh, I don’t watch sit­coms- re­al­ity TV.’’ And yes, th­ese two cat­e­gories con­trib­ute some out­stand­ing achieve­ments in the field of crud, with Hey Dad! and Who Wants to Marry a Mil­lion­aire? spring­ing to mind, but it’s as mean­ing­less a gen­er­al­i­sa­tion as claim­ing only to watch the ABC be­cause the com­mer­cial net­works are so bad ( which means The West Wing be­came great when it moved to the ABC and Kath & Kim got worse when it jumped to Seven). A good re­al­ity show tells an in­volv­ing story and there may be a mil­lion un­funny sit­coms about fat dads, long- suf­fer­ing wives and pre­co­cious kids, but there are two ver­sions of The Of­fice and both are hi­lar­i­ous.

What­ever the genre, a show’s noth­ing with­out a con­cept, and it’s tempt­ing to think this is where the rot sets in. Mak­ing Viva Laughlin a mu­si­cal mur­der mys­tery sounds as stupid as the idea of Hill Street Blues: The Mu­si­cal did when NYPD Blue cre­ator Steve Bochco made it and called it Cop Rock in 1990. But not all mu­si­cal crime shows are fail­ures. Con­sider The Singing De­tec­tive ( the Bri­tish minis­eries, not the 2003 US re­make) and Bri­tish se­ries Black­pool, the ba­sis for Viva Laughlin .

It is easy to think of 1965 sit­com My Mother the Car : ‘‘ Of course it flopped, it starred Jerry Van Dyke as a man who buys a 1928 car and dis­cov­ers it’s pos­sessed by his dead mother.’’ But is this re­ally any more stupid than the era’s suc­cess­ful sit­coms about, in turn, a man with a talk­ing horse, a Mar­tian and a ge­nie? Why yes, as it hap­pens, but not by much.

The prob­lem lies in the ex­e­cu­tion, as demon­strated by Nine’s 2002 at­tempt at a lo­cal ver­sion of hit re­al­ity se­ries Sur­vivor that it set in South Aus­tralia’s cold, windy scrub in­stead of in a trop­i­cal oa­sis. And this seems to be the case with Viva Laughlin , since it was a re­make of a show that didn’t rob you of the will to live. The mu­si­cal se­quences at­tracted the big­gest crit­i­cism and rightly so. In case you missed the sin­gle Aus­tralian air­ing ( and as only 833,000 peo­ple watched it, I’m as­sum­ing you did), it wasn’t per­formed like a tra­di­tional mu­si­cal but more akin to the char­ac­ters singing to the sound­track.

So while Elvis’s Viva Las Ve­gas played, main char­ac­ter Ri­p­ley Holden ( ac­tor Lloyd Owen) sang along. This worked in Black­pool be­cause of the cheesy, overblown chore­og­ra­phy, es­pe­cially when it used songs that aren’t typ­i­cal show tunes, such as the Smiths’ The Boy with the Thorn in His Side . In Viva Laughlin , the dance rou­tines were much more sub­dued, as if ev­ery­one in­volved was em­bar­rassed about the whole idea.

And it didn’t help that Owen’s voice was not one I’d rather hear in­stead of Elvis’s. De­spite even Hugh Jack­man’s best ef­forts, it was hard not to wish that ev­ery­one would shut up so you could hear Mick Jag­ger on Sym­pa­thy for the Devil . Cou­ple that with hack­neyed di­a­logue, such as when Holden tells his son, ‘‘ I may be a lot of things, but I am not a mur­derer’’ and de­liv­ers it with the earnest­ness of a Mike Brady lec­ture on The Brady Bunch , mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble to tell whether it’s a line that’s be­ing played for laughs.

Work­ing out why Viva Laughlin was bad is easy be­cause we have the orig­i­nal as a point of ref­er­ence. It ap­pears that if some­one is de­luded enough to think you can repli­cate some­thing great, they are also clue­less enough to miss why ev­ery­one liked the orig­i­nal. They think the char­ac­ters from M* A* S* H that peo­ple re­ally wanted more of were Colonel Pot­ter, Klinger and Fa­ther Mulcahy, as in 1983’ s AfterMASH . The same year some­one also thought the world needed a TV se­ries based on Casablanca.

Shows such as Viva Laughlin may be spec­tac­u­larly aw­ful but are they re­ally the worst TV shows? View­ers were as­saulted by only one episode be­fore ev­ery­one in­volved re­alised they’d made a ghastly mis­take. Ar­che­typal sac­cha­rine sit­com Full House hung around for 192 30- minute episodes. Surely, be­ing bad for years is the greater crime. US TV Guide thought so. In 2002 it com­piled a list of the 50 worst TV shows of all time and while of­fend­ers such as My Mother the Car and AfterMASH made the list, the No 1 spot was given over to The Jerry Springer Show . With 3000 hour- long episodes and count­ing, bad singing over an Elvis song doesn’t seem like such a crime.

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