This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Meredith Blake, who’ll review the show week to week, and Phil Nugent talk about The Playboy Club.
There are a number of competing impulses at work in The Playboy Club, the new, highly fictionalized drama inspired by Hugh Hefner’s legendary Chicago nightclub. The pilot is awash in nostalgia for the supposed glamour of the early 1960s, especially for the “bunny” ideal of feminine beauty: nipped waist, heaving bosom, infantilizing rabbit ears. At the same time, and in the bluntest way imaginable, the pilot also caters to contemporary ideas about sex and race. A storyline involving a lesbian bunny and her gay husband feels about as authentic as Forrest Gump’s digital handshake with J.F.K. But the problem goes well beyond the show's incongruous political correctness; with a straight face, The Playboy Club asks us to believe that serving drinks to men while wearing 4-inch heels and a corseted bustier was a path to self-empowerment. “It was the early ’60s and the bunnies were some of the only women in the world who could be anyone they wanted to be,” says the real Hugh Hefner in a creaky, self-congratulatory voiceover. The Playboy Club is worse than retrograde nostalgia; it’s revisionist history.
The revising begins from the opening frames of this glossy, yet somehow dull, pilot. As the camera pans from the Chicago skyline to the colorful exterior of the club, Hefner, sounding about 10,000 years old, modestly recalls, “I built a place where everything was perfect.” Keyholder and aspiring politician Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian) pulls up in a cab and wanders inside the club. Champagne is popped, tails are fluffed, and bunnies sashay about as Nick’s girlfriend, Carol-Lynne (Laura Benanti) performs on stage. The sequence is lively, but a bit of a letdown. Surely one of the main reasons for watching The Playboy Club is to see the space itself exactingly re-created, in all its wall-to-wall carpeted glory. So how about a Goodfellas-esque long take as Nick wanders into the club? Why not dazzle us with a few lingering shots of the club’s interior, the way that Mad Men did with the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce? Is that too much to ask?
The pilot barely establishes the central characters before taking a bizarre, ridiculous left turn: Maureen (Amber Heard), the club’s new cigarette girl, accidentally kicks a mafioso in the jugular with her high heel. Chivalrous Nick helps her dispose of the body, but naturally, the gangster’s disappearance does not go unnoticed, and the troubles continue to mount. Elsewhere, Carol-Lynne clashes with sleazy club manager Billy (an extremely shticky David Krumholtz), while perky lesbian bunny Alice (Leah Renee Cudmore) plots to open a chapter of the Mattachine Society (an early gay rights organization) using money earned at the club.
The pilot has been reworked slightly to emphasize Nick’s political aspirations (Fun fact: in the original, Maureen stabbed the gangster in the temple with her shoe. No, really.). This makes for a crisper storyline, but it also places the insipid Cibrian squarely at the center of the action. At least Heard manages to breathe some life into what’s otherwise a stock character—the obligatory Blonde From The Boonies Who’s Come To The Big City To Pursue Her Dreams Of Making It In Showbiz ®. As a 30something bunny facing retirement, Benanti is easily the best thing about the pilot, especially the moment when, with Bette Davis-like zing, she dismisses the chipper Alice: "Please stop seeing only the good in everybody. It’s taxing."
The show hasn’t quite figured out its relationship to actual Playboy history just yet, particularly when it comes to Hugh Hefner. Rather than a central character in the show, “Young Hef” appears in a fleeting cameo, filmed from behind while sitting at his desk—like Dr. Claw in silk pajamas. While the reluctance to make The Playboy Club into a show about Hugh Hefner—who’s already been the subject of biographical inquiry many times over by now (from Thy Neighbor’s Wife to The Girls Next Door) and has become a rather pathetic figure in recent years—is understandable, the solution they’ve settled on is goofy and aggrandizing. Rather than humanizing Hefner—or just leaving him out altogether—the pilot wraps him an aura of unnecessary mystery.
The Playboy Club doesn’t just invite comparisons to Mad Men, it practically demands them. The pilot is capably directed by Alan Taylor, a veteran of the AMC series (and basically every HBO show ever). As womanizing Nick, Cibrian is reminiscent of that cute, vacant guy from your office who dressed up as Don Draper for Halloween, but all the pomade in the world can’t make up for his woeful lack of charisma. The club’s lone black bunny, Brenda, is played by Naturi Naughton, who also happened to play the black bunny on Mad Men, which is either an unbelievable coincidence or the laziest casting ever. Predictably, Brenda is mostly relegated to the sidelines, popping up only occasionally to remind the blonde bunnies of how hard it is to be black—except at the Playboy Club! “‘Rough’ is what it’s like for a chocolate bunny out in the rest of the damn world,” she tells Maureen. “When they call me a name, it ain’t ‘chocolate bunny!’”
All this hypocrisy might be tolerable, if only The Playboy Club weren’t so damn humorless. The way I see it, the best way to distinguish this series from Mad Men would have been to go for high camp—think Valley Of The Dolls, set in a nightclub. Instead of lazily concocting yet another half-baked mafia plot (why, why, why does it always have to go back to the mob?) and injecting the show with a disingenuous message of empowerment, The Playboy Club could have been a delicious, soapy melodrama. The possibilities are endless: Pill-popping! Illegal abortions! Eating disorders! Mascara-streaked cat fights!
No, it wouldn’t have been progressive, but at least it wouldn’t have been boring.
Phil: Some writers (most notably, Mark Greif) have argued that a big part of Mad Men's appeal is the self-righteous, superior feeling some people get from watching characters in the recent past behaving in ways—sexist, bad-parenting, chain-smoking, blackface-singing ways—that we can plainly see are "bad" and bad for them. If there's anything to this idea, then The Playboy Club and Pan Am are tipping their hats to Mad Men while at the same time mounting the backlash against it. Both these shows take professional stereotypes—Playboy bunnies and flight attendants around the time of the "Fly me!" ad campaign—that, in the '60s and early '70s, were widely seen as degrading to women, and try to sell the idea that they actually gave women the chance to become liberated career women and feminist pioneers.
It's a notion that Pan Am treats outrageously enough to have some fun with, but the only outrageous thing about The Playboy Club is the scale of its miscalculated reverence for the sanctimonious mythology it's trying to peddle. Whose brainstorm was it to get the real Hugh Hefner to lend his vocal imprimatur to this thing? Anyone who's ever tried to stagger through a few paragraphs of the "Playboy Philosophy", the creaky manifesto that Hef published in the magazine in the '60s, knows that the affable old vulture is his own worst publicity agent. The show takes Hefner the way he's always wanted to be taken, as a progressive crusader who dared to hang out with Sammy Davis, Jr. and have "a Negro band" (i.e., Ike and Tina Turner) at his parties because he "doesn't care what color people are, so long as they're interesting."
When Hefner was younger, he starred in a string of attempts to transfer the Playboy mystique to television, hosting a series of variety-chat shows intended to look like televised versions of his fabled parties. People tuning in hoping for something sexy and fun instead got to see a bunch of celebrities paying tribute to their stiff-as-a-board host's fine taste and cultural bravery. Anyone looking to recapture that level of disappointment and boredom can tune in to NBC tonight.