Perhaps four years ago, before Don Draper was THE name in retro-cool, before Mad Men had not just staked a claim on 1960s nostalgia, but made reliving the cultural and societal differences of half-century ago a television phenomenon, The Playboy Club might have been a charming, thought-provoking concept.
At first glance, one would believe The Playboy Club, from Parenthood, Friday Night Lights producer Brian Grazer, intended to be a program seeking to analyze the sexual revolution through the eyes of women on the forefront of the movement – promoting a brand, while also selling fantasy to their male customers.
Surprisingly, instead of exploring that potentially rich subject matter, The Playboy Club has chosen to be a somewhat run-of-the-mill crime drama that utilizes the fabled club as a setting for all sorts of intermingling of both shady underworld and political dealings. Whether this is an attempt to throw off critics who encouraged boycotting the show for its sexual subject matter, or a move to throw the audience a wily curve ball that, for all the talk about sexual revolution, these women are cogs in a story that is essentially about men is unclear.
Having seen the trailer for the series is to have practically seen the series premiere – but with without all those pesky commercials to filter through.
The episode begins (and ends) with a voice-over from the face of the company, Hugh Hefner (though Hefner doesn't actually make an appearance), which further undermines any notion that The Playboy Club is capable of entering Mad Men territory – or really has any intention to do so.
Soon after Hef fades out, the audience is introduced to new bunny Maureen (Amber Heard), who dreamily looks on as Carol-Lynne (Laura Benanti) captivates the audience with her vocal stylings. As Maureen watches, her fellow bunny pals Alice (Leah Renee Cudmore) and Brenda – played by former Mad Men bunny Naturi Naughton – introduce themselves to the audience through some clunky exposition about Carol-Lynne being the first bunny.
No sooner have the introductions been made than Maureen finds herself under the lustful eye of a handful of men – and then she manages to accidentally kill one of them after he gets all hands-y with her in the club’s back room.
Lucky for Maureen, she’s also caught the eye of up-and-coming attorney Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian), who, for reasons not immediately made clear, helps the novice bunny by disposing of the body.
Dalton isn't at the club waiting to rescue bunny-tailed damsels in distress, though. He is the romantic interest of aging bunny Carol-Lynne – who is arguably better suited for running the establishment than being a fixture of it – a fact she constantly drops on the uninterested ears of club manager Billy Rosen (David Krumholtz).
Overall the cast is attractive and well suited to their roles but, ultimately, there is no substance to any of them, at least not yet. Each bunny has her own side story – the problem is, none of them are particularly interesting or new to television.
Heard is, of course, beautiful, but that’s seemingly all that Maureen has to offer. Sure, the audience is given a glimpse of her dreams of making it as a big star – beyond a nice smile, however, there’s no indication that Maureen is anything but a dreamer.
More troublesome is the casting of Cibrian, who took over the role from Jeff Hephner (soon to be seen in Boss). Cibrian has the look of 1963 down pat, but one can’t help wonder if his casting has something to do with the way he almost perfectly mimics Jon Hamm’s casually smarter-than-you speech rhythm. If you were to close your eyes, you would almost swear that Don Draper had dropped by the Playboy Club for a few drinks.
Furthermore, Cibrian’s Dalton is shown to have a bit of a dark side – with hints that he was (or still is) involved with the Chicago mafia. All of that is fine and dandy; the real problem is Dalton’s ubiquitous presence at the Playboy Club or Playboy Mansion. For a guy who may be a key protagonist, Dalton comes off as being a bit of a pervert.
So the question then is: just what is a series like The Playboy Club aiming at? The answer is far from certain. More so than any other program draped in some semblance of nostalgia, The Playboy Club should be front and center in confronting that decade’s societal inequalities and, to some degree, share a subtle wink with its modern audience that we all know better, or look how far we have come – regardless if we have or have not. Unfortunately, The Playboy Club seems content to parade pretty women in front of the camera and make nods at progressive thinking, as though the program actually believes the Playboy brand was responsible for curing several of society’s ills.
Ultimately, The Playboy Club is selling a product, and obsessively reminds the viewer of that fact as much as possible. Hefner’s claims, “the world was changing, and we were changing it. One bunny at a time.” It’s clever the way Hefner, Playboy and now The Playboy Club have masked the company’s marketing behind the allure of providing women a place where they “could be anything they wanted.” So long as what the women wanted was to be responsible for filling the coffers of a worldwide company, then yes, they could be anything they wanted.
Right now, for all of its eye candy and uncertain intent, The Playboy Club comes off as a splintered segment of a larger whole. Sadly, that segment is all style and no substance. After expecting there to be some sense of self-awareness, it soon becomes clear that The Playboy Club has no intention of being something deeper. The show already believes it has plumbed the depths of the 1960’s complexities.
It's not as though the talent to do so isn't there, so despite some reservations and disappointment in the overall structure of the program, it feels like there is potential for The Playboy Club to grow up and make for interesting television. Time will tell whether or not it does.
The Playboy Club airs Monday nights @10pm on NBC.