In the very week that another 1960s based TV series just won another Emmy for Best Drama Series (Mad Men), the first of the two network “copycat shows” aired its pilot episode. NBC’s newest drama The Playboy Club unquestionably borrows elements and ideas from the AMC hit, but fails to bring the excitement, drama, and intensity to one of the most infamous and exclusive hot spots of the era.
The show is set in Chicago, during the 1960s rise of the Playboy Club, a place where key-holders have access to the Hefner lifestyle, and some of the most beautiful women in America. The show follows the work and home life of the bunny-clad workers, their supervisors, and their customers. Amber Heard plays Bunny Maureen, the new cigarette girl, who on one of her first days on the job finds herself the cause of a mobster’s death. Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian), a key-holder and lawyer with political aspirations, helps her get out of trouble, but in the process manages to alienate his now-ex Carol-Lynne (Laura Benanti), who feels threatened by the younger bunny.
Other characters include Bunny Brenda (Naturi Naughton) who is trying to become the first black centerfold, Bunny Alice (Leah Renee) a closeted lesbian in a sham marriage to a gay man (Sean Maher), and club manager Billy Rosen (David Krumholtz). The girls live together as a sorority at the Chicago Playboy Mansion, and by the end of the episode, the aging Carol-Lynne steps up as their new manager, mentor, and house mother – a relationship not unlike Joan and the secretaries. Hugh Hefner makes multiple voice-over cameos, setting up the series, and a younger version of him appears briefly as well.
The show is beautifully shot, and has unquestionable big-network production value, but this almost hurts the overall experience. Part of what makes Mad Men work so well is that when you watch it, you feel like the 1960s are brought to life. The attention to detail on that show is near flawless, and the cable budget almost helps to keep it grounded. In The Playboy Club, the sets, props, hair, and wardrobe, feel so much more like a modern throwback designed to emulate the 1960s, than to something actually set in that period. The on-screen stage performances (including one from a stand-in Ike and Tina) felt too “big” to be authentic, and the series’ modern score was more reminiscent of a present day procedural cop show than a period piece.
It’s hard to tell what this show is meant to be. On the surface it seems to be just another mellow drama with cheesy dialogue and forgettable characters. It does touch on social issues (racial secretion, gay rights, glass ceiling), but feels very forced within the context of the show. The two leads are positive examples of female empowerment, but the one-dimensional background characters almost negate that. Overall the show feels more like a failed throwback version of Las Vegas then anything else. It needs to figure out who its demo is and what it’s trying to be. More importantly, for a show set in the 1960s Playboy Club and the sexual revolution, it’s hard to believe that the end product is so unbelievably boring. Perhaps if the series would have been made for cable, it would have had more sex appeal and more interesting storytelling. As is, the pilot felt like a last-ditch effort to capitalize on the declining relevance of Hef and Playboy, made by people who never understood it in the first place… or maybe, it’s just a premise that isn’t meant to work on a broadcast network. Viewers, and time, will tell.
The Playboy Club airs Mondays on NBC.
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