Going into it, it seems there are two already established ways to view NBC’s The Playboy Club, and neither one reflects well on it. One is the view, put forth by such draconian entities as the Parents Television Council, that the show is a sexist and borderline pornographic program that is a “blatant attempt to obliterate any remaining standards of broadcast decency.” The other is the view that the show is hopping on the 1960s style and nostalgia that AMC’s Mad Men originated with, and then used as the springboard to earn four consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Drama. (And certainly the show hasn’t helped itself in this regard – take a look at Mad Men‘s cast shot, then The Playboy Club‘s, and tell me there’s not at least an unconscious attempt on the latter’s part to emulate the former.)
Fortunately, the pilot of The Playboy Club isn’t any more provocative than anything else on television, and could never be mistaken for an episode of Mad Men. Unfortunately, the reason why it skips these comparisons is because it’s not complicated, nuanced or even entertaining. It presents itself as a show that exhibits the societal changes of the 1960s through the lens of its newly empowered Playboy Bunnies, but I found it a dull, scattered mess that bogs interesting elements in wooden writing and undeveloped plots.
As the name implies, the show is set in the very first Playboy Club of Chicago, Illinois, in the action-packed year of 1963. Social change is coming to America, and the media empire of Hugh Hefner is riding the wave in the Club and the Mansion to a non-stop celebration. At the center of this action is Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian), a prosecutor with a mobbed-up background and ambitions to run for State’s Attorney; and Maureen (Amber Heard), a small-town girl who’s only recently earned the coveted role of Playboy Bunny. When Maureen inadvertently kills a grabby customer who happens to be an influential mob boss, Nick Dalton gets involved in the action and connecting himself again to dangerous elements of his past.
Let’s get to the very first problem with this show: Eddie Cibrian. Now, I don’t have anything against Cibrian from prior roles on programs like Third Watch or Sunset Beach, nor am I seriously disposed to dislike him on a personal level for his extramarital affair with LeAnn Rimes. But every time Nick Dalton* appeared on screen, I was possessed with the unnatural urge to whack him across the jaw with Wild Turkey bottle. As a leading man so clearly being cast as a Don Draper clone, Cibrian has none of Jon Hamm’s charisma or even charisma to speak of: an utter lack of emotion in delivering his lines, a smarmy grin to cover up for the fact and one of the most punchable faces I can recall on television.
*And yes, I’ll be referring to Nick Dalton by the full Nick Dalton each time, because the show certainly wants you to based on the respectful tone every single character has when discussing him.
And maybe that’s a personal prejudice on my part, coloring my views on the rest of the show – I’m perfectly willing to acknowledge that. Unfortunately, nothing else in the show is strong enough to make up for the vacuum in the tailored suit. As a whole, The Playboy Club reeks of being a show that has no idea what version of itself it wants to be, tries to throw everything together, and as such does most everything poorly. You have the criminal and mob aspect of things in Nick Dalton, but you also have the feeling of a campy soap opera in the behind-the-scenes lives of the Bunnies, a musical variety show in the club’s live performances, and a transitional historical drama in the show’s stated message of feminism. That main plot I mentioned above takes up mostly the first ten minutes of the show – in a manner that felt far too Law and Order: SVU in its execution – and then flits randomly between the others for the remaining half hour.
But what about the assertion, put forward by the show’s female leads, that the heart of The Playboy Club is all about the empowerment of women in the 1960s and how many of them were finding their own way in the world? Certainly there’s a wide breadth of female characters in the different Bunnies aside from small-town girl Maureen. Bunny Brenda (Naturi Naughton*) is an African-American with aspirations of being the first “chocolate centerfold,” Bunny Alice (Leah Renee) is a seemingly naïve girl who’s in fact a lesbian married to a homosexual man as cover, and Bunny Carol-Lynne (Laura Benanti) is the original Bunny who sees her days in the spotlight ending and wants to take a more affirmative role in the club management.
*The joke that Naughton played a virtually identical character in season four of Mad Men has been made a few times already – Ryan McGee I think was the first one to do so – but it’s still hilarious. I personally am pretending that Naughton’s character is actually in fact the same one from Mad Men, fleeing Chicago and changing her name two years later for reasons yet to be disclosed, only to be confronted by Richard Pryce and his pimp cane.
So yes, the show does have female empowerment – that is, if “empowerment” means the same thing as “playing characters nearly devoid of interest or personality.” None of the Bunnies gets enough screentime or content to make them more than cardboard cutout characters, with Amber Heard is the biggest disappointment – despite a few moments when she’s getting into the spirit of the club’s musical numbers there’s almost nothing to Maureen beyond a numb stare. They have various comments about how much money they make or their untouchable quality to the Club’s members, but the vast majority of them still feel like breathing centerfolds as opposed to a real person.
And working against the show’s stated goal of empowerment, the women in the show still need to turn to men when they need help. Maureen spends most of her time unable to take her eyes off Nick Dalton, Carol-Lynne goes over manager Billy Rosen (David Krumholtz) directly to Hef himself when he won’t listen to her arguments on why she should have a stronger role, and another Bunny spends time fighting with her husband over why she doesn’t want to quit. Hopefully next week’s Pan Am is better at showing how society was changing in their favor, because this isn’t doing the trick.
So is The Playboy Club our first serious failure of the year? Well, not exactly, as I can’t shake the feeling there is a somewhat interesting show clawing its way past the suck of Cibrian. The musical numbers and accompanying club dances – Carol-Lynne singing “Sweet Home Chicago,” a Tina Turner-lookalike singing “Shake a Tail Feather” – were legitimately engaging, and I like the indication they’ll be expanding that with moves like casting The Voice winner Javier Colon as Ray Charles in a future episode. I think some of the plot lines introduced with the Bunnies have the potential to be interesting, particularly Alice’s cover marriage* and Brenda’s struggle against racism. And as a red-blooded heterosexual male, I’ll admit there’s worse things to put on my TV than Amber Heard and Naturi Naughton in tight satin bustiers.
*Though once again re: personal bias, my interest in this storyline could be because her fake husband is played by Dr. Simon Tam himself, Sean Maher. We know from Firefly he’s got comedic and dramatic chops, so he could both liven things up and deepen them as well.
But I can’t say I have any optimism that these elements are going to save the show, because this was just not a good pilot or a good episode of television. It wasn’t as bad as I was expecting going in, having heard a fair share of disdain from critics who’d seen the pilot in advance, but so much of it was a slog to watch and made me wish I had the ability to leap into the show and curb-stomp Nick Dalton at every possible interval. Maybe it can get better in weeks to come, though when a show stumbles this much coming out of the gate, it’s got a long way to go to even get close to appointment viewing.
- I almost certainly won’t be writing this one up on a weekly basis, but because I give every show a fighting chance I’ll watch a few more episodes. Around the four-episode mark I’ll have something else to say, be it a yea or nay.
- That is, if the show’s even around that long: it debuted earlier this week to only 5 million viewers and a 1.6 demo rating. Given that the show’s only getting 13 episodes to start, maybe they let the string run out, but who knows with NBC.
- The disappointment I feel in Heard’s performance is a revelation that doesn’t bode well for the upcoming release of the Rum Diary film later this year, in which she plays the love interest. I’ve already expressed my thoughts on what that film looks like after years of uncertainty about its release, and let me just say Heard’s not helping its case.
- Nothing good to say about the external Chicago shots the show presents, which remind me more of Batman: The Animated Series than they do of real-life Chicago.
- Carol-Lynne points out that Nick Dalton is at the club every night, trying to impress everyone. Does no one want to point out how depressing it is for a guy to go to the same bar every night to be surrounded by half-naked women, even if said bar is the Playboy Club? If I did that you’d call me skeevy.