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Thursday, April 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 44.0° F  Overcast
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TELEVISION

A risky gamble
Viva Laughlin bets the farm on a casino musical

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In Viva Laughlin (Sunday, 7 p.m., CBS), Ripley (Lloyd Owen) is a smooth-talker who's building a casino in Laughlin, Nev. He's got perfect hair and sky-high dreams, but he's dealt a bad hand when his partner turns up murdered. (Brace yourself for gambling metaphors - I'm just getting warmed up.) The police question Ripley, but a more likely suspect is his archenemy, a slick casino magnate (Hugh Jackman) who holds all the cards in town. (How'm I doing?) Or was it his partner's wife, Bunny Baxter (Melanie Griffith), a floozy who's been dealing dirty? (Okay, I'm bored.)

Viva Lauglin is your standard casino series à la Las Vegas, with sentimental drama and naughty romance. But there's one difference. Like its inspiration, the British series Viva Blackpool, it's a musical, featuring characters who suddenly break into song. That might have been amusing, but the production numbers are staged with all the panache of a Toyota commercial. They're also staggeringly literal. Jackman's devilish character is introduced with - yes - "Sympathy for the Devil." Ripley lets a fateful bet ride at the roulette table, and Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Let It Ride" dutifully rises on the soundtrack.

Worst of all is Melanie Griffith. She apparently ordered another round of plastic surgery after landing the bombshell role, and she looks about as sexy as the Frankenstein monster. The series loses all its fizz whenever she delivers a line in that mush-mouthed baby voice.

The moment Griffith walks onscreen, Viva Laughlin craps out. (Sorry.)

The Next Great American Band
Friday, 7 pm (Fox)

The people behind American Idol have come up with a similar competition for bands: three judges, viewer voting, multiple contestants specializing in various genres.

It's pretty clear where this will all lead. Just as Idol did for solo singers, The Next Great American Band will create a new breed of made-for-TV acts. Lack of talent won't matter, just as it didn't for Idol winners Taylor Hicks, Carrie Underwood and Ruben Studdard. With the star-making machinery behind them, the reality-series bands will displace authentic bands from airwaves and magazine covers. The next Beatles will never even have a chance. Pop music will sicken and die, killed by slick corporate synergy.

Enjoy.

Lisa Williams: Life Among the Dead
Friday, 8 pm (Lifetime)

Lisa Williams is a psychic with frosted hair and a British accent. She's trying to get a foothold in TV's crowded talking-to-the-dead racket, but her act is less convincing than most.

This week's episode begins with a candid scene between Lisa and her family that looks staged. (It's not a good sign when you don't even buy a psychic series' nonpsychic segments.) Then she's off to help "celebrities" communicate with their dead friends and family members. The best she can do in the celebrity department is Shanna Moakler, whose career is so obscure that playing along with a TV psychic would count as decent exposure.

Lisa requires that people bring her an object associated with the dearly departed. Shanna shows up with an urn in the shape of a Harley Davidson motorcycle engine, which holds the ashes of a friend. Lisa looks into the great beyond and makes a stunning psychic connection: "Did he have a motorbike?"

This series is so phony that I wouldn't be surprised if even the dead were paid for their cooperation.

Masterpiece Theatre
Sunday, 8 pm (WHA)

What if a liberal woman ran England? According to The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard, it would be heaven on earth.

Ros Pritchard (Jane Horrocks) is a can-do supermarket manager with a Hillary Clinton hairdo. Surveying the goons who run for Parliament in her district, she mutters, "I could do better than you lot." Pritchard enters the race and becomes the head of a liberal social movement that sweeps her into the prime minister's office. She denounces the Iraq war, distances herself from the Bush administration and moves to stop global warming. Her sensible policies inspire a golden age in England. The media note that Pritchard has brought the country "an increased mood of mutual responsibility, mutual trust, social awareness and political participation."

Could a Hillary Clinton presidency possibly be this good? Or does Hillary lack the requisite supermarket experience?

The Big Bang Theory
Monday, 7:30 pm (CBS)

The Big Bust Theory is more like it. This new sitcom is about two nerdy scientists (Jim Parsons, Johnny Galecki) and their dumb-blond neighbor (Kaley Cuoco). It strains to communicate the nerds' genius, working awkward physics references into the dialogue. "If I were to give up at the first little hitch, I never would have been able to identify the fingerprints of string theory in the aftermath of the Big Bang!"

If these guys are so smart, why is the series so dumb? It's packed with old jokes about Klingons (would you believe the nerds are Star Trek fans?) and punchlines predicated on the hilarity of being online. "Save it for your blog, Howard."

The laugh track eats up this material, but I suspect its IQ has been set to about 70.

Phenomenon
Wednesday, 7 pm (NBC)

This new reality competition searches for "mentalists" - people whose psychic energy is so strong that they can bend spoons or float in thin air. Each week, contestants will demonstrate their mental abilities, and viewers will vote for the winner.

Come to think of it, wouldn't a decent mentalist be able to foresee who will win? In which case, why even bother with the competition?

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