Thursday, 22 September 2011

Review: THE PLAYBOY CLUB, 1.1 - "Pilot"

Thursday, 22 September 2011
written by Chad Hodge; directed by Alan Taylor
starring Amber Heard, Eddie Cibrian, Laura Benanti, Naturi Naughton & David Krumholz

It's easy to understand why NBC decided to give The Playboy Club a shot this season. AMC's Mad Men has been dominating the Emmy and Golden Globes since it arrived five years ago, the Playboy brand still has cachet, and there's the chance to show debonair men in sharp suits and svelte ladies wearing fishnet tights. As the setting of a period drama with ready-made sex appeal, you can't go far wrong with a Playboy Club in downtown Chicago circa 1963. Well, in theory. In practice, The Playboy Club is a strangely unsexy and slightly dull plod, despite there being a sizable amount of action crammed into this first hour. But with cliched characters failing to leap off the screen, and no storylines that buzz with life, it's going to be an uphill struggle proving this drama is anything more than a Mad Men-wannabe ill-suited to a mainstream US network like NBC. A network that ensures the most risqué thing that happened in this pilot was hearing a black Bunnygirl say "penis".

The first ever Playboy Club in Chicago is the setting for this show, as we meet a nervous new cocktail waitress "Bunny" called Maureen (Amber Heard), selling cigarettes from a tray suspended around her neck, who becomes embroiled in a murder cover-up after accidentally killing a sex-pest mob boss. The body's disposed of with the help of Maureen's handsome boss, Playboy Club Keyholder Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian), a suave lawyer running for state's attorney with family connections to the Mafia. As that central story rumbled forward, other characters stepped in to setup their own soap-y storylines: the ageing Carol-Lynne (Laura Benanti) who knows her time as a Bunny is drawing to a close; lesbian Bunny Alice (Leah Renee), whose husband is secretly gay; and African-American Bunny Brenda (Naturi Naughton), a girl who has an ambition to be the first "chocolate" Playboy Playmate.

To be fair, The Playboy Club does a decent enough job of introducing its characters and priming the audience for what's to come, all while giving us a little taste of what The Club's all about. There's no denying the concept here is fun and has appeal, but the execution is worryingly flat and the characters too wooden. The only real standout moments were the brisk opening five-minutes, with Maureen accidentally stabbing someone in the throat with her stiletto, and a few musical moments when various performers sing and dance in the club (including impersonators of Ike and Tina Turner). The rest felt strangely soulless, yet overconfident that audiences will lap this stuff up because it's a faster-paced Mad Men-esque piece and, hey, Cibrian's just as handsome as Jon Hamm and comes with a similar drawl. Plus there are hot girls running around in tight corsets with bunny tails pinned to their pert behinds. How can it fail?

Thing is, there's a deep intelligence and social insight to Mad Men that's not evident in The Playboy Club, which is immediately at a disadvantage because it's so clearly the network's attempt at doing something similar to that show. Director Alan Taylor even worked on Mad Men, and actress Naughton essentially played this black Bunnygirl character on season 4 of Mad Men. This show feels half a decade too late, and there's not much here it can call its own. Even the setting is, of course, a real place that existed—meaning the writers have to get Playboy's approval for anything that may possibly damage Hugh Heffner's business. And being on a network means there's no chance of any nudity, no matter how necessary to the plot. (Indeed, four of the lead actresses have no-nudity clauses written into their contracts.) Such a decision immediately undercuts some of the appeal of a drama with Playboy in the title.

Overall, I wouldn't say The Playboy Club isn't an all-out failure, but it's an idea that doesn't click as a primetime NBC series. Maybe if there were better writers involved and it was on an edgier cable channel, it would stand a better chance of success. There was just too much here that put me off; from Hugh Heffner's awful voice-over (wisely ditched for the series ahead), to the insipid Hamm-lite performance of Cibrian. A few of the young actresses show promise, especially the radiant Amber Heard, and giving the show a connection to organized crime neatly introduces some danger (if all else fails, maybe it'll focus more on the criminal underworld than rich men ogling pretty girls), but it wasn't enough for me to consider giving The Playboy Club anymore of my time.


  • Given the fact a number of NBC affiliates are refusing to show this drama over claims of indecency (which is a typically American overreaction that's patently ridiculous), together with the more immediate problem of a very weak response to the "Pilot" (only 5 million people bothered to watch Monday), I'll be surprised if The Playboy Club makes it to Christmas. Or Thanksgiving. Or maybe October.
19 September 2011 / NBC