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.