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Press Tour: 'Playboy Club' is about empowerment, not exploitation apparently
Stars and producers explain why their drama isn't too hot for TV
I don't have a Benjamin Moore paint sample sticks handy to list the myriad different colors that Television Critics Association press tour panels can come in.
Without going into the rainbow of shadings, there are certain obvious favorites that pop up several times per tour:
There's The Panel That's Funnier Than The Show It's Promoting.
There's The Panel Of People We Love Promoting A Show We Hate.
There's The Confusing Serialized Show Panel Where Only The Creator Gets Questions.
The Monday (August 1) morning panel for "The Playboy Club" was a prime example of The Battle Between Critical Frustration and Panel Talking Points. In this type of panel, the critical populace has a collective bee in its bonnet and the publicists on the respective show have done an expert job warning in the stars and producers which questions are coming. The result is a delicate tap dance wherein we attempt to circle the same question from a dozen different angles looking for a crack in solidarity or, at the very least, an approach that doesn't trigger an auto-response in the same way you'd try tricking an artificial intelligence robot. It's a TCA version of the Turing test.
In this light I can only salute the cast and producers of "The Playboy Club," who came into the Monday panel with a determined message and stuck to it with dogged enthusiasm from all fronts. It leaves me with no choice but to report this apparently unimpeachable fact: "The Playboy Club" is all about empowerment, just as The Playboy Club was all about empowerment back in the 1960s. That's their story and they're sticking to it. [And they may even be right!]
Specific statements of empowerment after the break...
"The Playboy Club" creator Chad Hodge threw down the early gauntlet in response to the very first question of the panel, which involved a line from the pilot saying something along the lines of "You can be anyone you want."
"[R]eally the show is all about empowering, and who these women can be, and how they can use their position to get what they want," Hodge said.
Some people, of course, are already unconvinced by that message of empowerment. Salt Lake City's KSL affiliate told NBC that its brand was incompatible with the Playboy brand and declined to air the series.
"We heard about that," Hodge acknowledged. "And that is certainly their right, you know, to air or not air the show. And we’re just excited that
another network in Salt Lake City has picked up the show."
Indeed, it didn't take long for KMYU, Salt Lake City's My Network affiliate, to agree to air "The Playboy Club."
Executive producer Ian Biederman took exception to the way the show has been portrayed, specifically denying that the content in "The Playboy Club" will be outside of the established norms for 10 p.m. network dramas.
"I would say that in terms of content and anything racy, it’s mild compared to a lot of stuff that’s on television. And the intent of this show is to show characters at a certain time and a certain place trying to become something, and trying — and being a family. It really has nothing to do, as I think anyone who has seen the pilot will tell you, with anything racy or trying to be exploitative. It’s just not the purpose of the show, not the spirit of the show. It’s a lot of fun. There’s a ton of music in it, there’s a ton of energy. And that’s really what the show is. It’s a great ride for an hour."
Biederman got to be the first person on the panel to attempt to make one of the clearest distinctions the show will have to sell over the next month.
"It's not based on the magazine," Biederman told a reporter asking how the network hoped to get female viewers to watch a show built around a nudie magazine. " It’s based on The Playboy Club in 1961. It’s entirely different."
But let's let the show's female stars begin the discussion of why their characters weren't being exploited and why they, themselves, aren't be exploited in "The Playboy Club."
"I think the difference here in what you said about women using their bodies, these girls are using so much more than that," Naturi Naughton told a reporter asking if it might be somehow regressive to show these women using their bodies to get things done. "I mean, it’s empowering because
these girls are smart, they’re going to school, they’re buying homes, buying, you know, property. Things that show, I think, what women weren’t able do at that time. Using their resources and relying on themselves. So I think there’s a total difference."
Of women of the period, Jenna Dewan Tatum noted, "They were limited. So these women had a big choice in doing what they wanted to do and they felt a lot of freedom from that. So I feel like that freedom is what you will feel from us Bunnies in the show."
No "Playboy Club" star was more outspoken in defense of the empowerment message than Amber Heard, whose fresh-off-the-bus Maureen is the Bunny at the center of the pilot's high drama, which includes some much-debated assistance from Eddie Cibrian's Nick, assistance that one reporter implied suggested a lack of empowerment.
"[D]on’t underestimate that character, and her intelligence, and the journey she’s going to take to really rise above that," Heard said. "I think that the moment that Nick helps her is more of a reflection of who Nick is than — and I think that comes at no cost to her. I think Maureen allows herself to be helped when she needs it. And she by no means relies on any character, male or female, in this story, and never has. And we’ll see that journey, and that’s part of why I’m so excited to be involved in this project, and chose this project as a platform to deliver that message, as well as others."
And what other messages might those be?
"I think it’s just chauvinistic to deny women her sexuality," Heard said. "I think that it’s about empowering. It comes down ultimately to choices. And just like anything else, if there are choices are available and they’re making the choice, they’re not being exploited."
One person who already visited with us on press tour who disagreed with the show's underpinnings -- again, without seeing the show -- was feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who dropped by last week to talk about her HBO documentary "Gloria: In Her Own Words."
Responding to shows like "The Playboy Club" and ABC's "Pan Am" and "Charlie's Angels," Steinem told us, "The hierarchical response has two poles: The very worst men are into sadomasochism, and the very best men are into nostalgia. So I think this is like the nostalgia industry."
When told of Steinem's comments, Hodge responded, "We’re really focused on exploring those things that she talks about. I mean, the show is a very deep, character driven show. And these all these things we’ve been talking about are part of our storylines and part of the things that the characters talk about and ask questions about and it’s definitely part of our world. It’s not it’s all something we’re bringing into our show rather than ignoring it."
Heard added, "She talks about men writing the shows and us girls being somehow puppets in this play that we have no control over. But we are every women up here is an independent, self sufficient, intelligent woman making a career for herself, and we’re representing a group of women who were doing the same in a time where options were completely different."
The "Informers" and "Drive Angry" star didn't just dive into this role without doing her research.
"There are women who have talked to us about their experience," Heard said. "I have yet to meet a women there might be, they might exist. But I have yet to meet an ex Bunny who’s disgruntled about her experience. I haven’t talked to them. But I’ve talked to, on the other hand, a lot of women who are look back fondly on those memories and are thankful for that experience, or thankful for the money it earned them and, therefore, the opportunities it was later able to afford them."
So there you have it, folks. Advocacy groups may be sharpening their claws and fangs to fall upon "The Playboy Club" and tear it to shreds, but the creators and stars are prepared and eager to defend the show. And if the gestating protests also generate publicity, they're prepared to make the most of it.
"To me I think Playboy, it hits everybody a different way," Biederman says of the brand. "It’s a lightning rod, obviously, which we hope will attract attention to our show. But I mean, the show is about fantasy. It’s about what Hugh Hefner built. And it’s about mystery and mystique, and that brings you in. And at the end of the day, it’s about these women."
Viewers will be able to form their own informed opinions when "The Playboy Club" premieres on NBC on Monday, September 19.