TV Review: NBC's 'The Playboy Club'
A refocused, revised pilot loses track of the Bunnys
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Normally I like long and unwieldy introductions to reviews, but in the interest of time, I'm going to cut right to the chase here...
If you're a show that's already going to have a struggle to convince viewers that you're attempting to depict a period of female empowerment rather than exploitation, perhaps the best thing to do when reshooting large chunks of your pilot isn't to thin out the character moments that focus on your female stars in favor of giving more screentime to your bland Don Draper manque.
That's just my suggestion.
And it should be pretty rudimentary, right? When making a show that wants to be feminist in nature -- or, at the very least, not overtly sexist -- one should always err on the side of your living, breathing leading ladies and not on the well-decorated masculine mannequin. It's just common sense.
Unfortunately, between the original pilot for "The Playboy Club" sent to critics in May and the revised pilot sent earlier this month, changes were made the tipped the balance. Whereas I kinda enjoyed the original pilot, about women at Chicago's Playboy Club in the early 1960s, I was significantly less enamored of the revised pilot, airing on Monday (September 19) night, which feels much more like the story of a handsome Chicago attorney in the 1960s who likes to spend a lot of time being admired by the Bunnies at the Playboy Club.
I was willing to go on the journey with that first version of the show. Did I totally buy its empowerment message? No. But I was willing to accept that what seems progressive to my 21st Century eyes wouldn't have any relationship to what would seem progressive to women in 1960-ish.
I'm a good deal more cautious about the second version of the show, because it no longer feels like "The Playboy Club" itself is convinced by what it was formerly selling and has decided to gamble on a different horse. And when that horse takes the form of Eddie Cibrian, it's not that I'm fleeing the betting window in horror, but I've been fooled too many times for any confidence.
More after the break...
Created by Chad Hodge, "The Playboy Club" is on dangerous footing already with a voiceover that celebrates the transition from the restrictive '50s, into a new decade in which "anything could happen to anybody... or any-bunny."
The voiceover is courtesy of Fictionalized Hugh Hefner, which almost makes the the bunny punning acceptable, since Real-Life Hef has always been prone to groan-worthy bon mots, but... it's not.
Anyway, as it now stands, "The Playboy Club" stars Cibrian as Nick Dalton, a crusading young attorney with political aspirations and a potentially problematic ties to the Chicago Mafia.
Those ties become even more problematic when Dalton is present for the entirely accidental murder of a local mob boss at the hands (or feet) of New Bunny in Town Maureen (Amber Heard) at the Playboy Club, which the voice tells us is "the place in the toddling town where everything was perfect." Perhaps that's why Nick spends so much time at the Playboy Club? He's also dating slightly-over-the-hill singer-Bunny Carol-Lynne (Laura Benanti) and he's spoken of in hushed tones by various other Bunnies, including girl-with-a-secret Alice (Leah Renee), color-barrier-challenging Brenda (Naturi Naughton) and Janie (Jenna Dewan Tatum), who's dating bartender Max (Wes Ramsey).
Nick is also friends with Billy Morton (David Krumholtz), the Playboy Club's general manager.
The instinctive comparison that everybody is making is to "Mad Men," which mostly relates to the period setting and Dalton, who could be considered an economically destitute man's Don Draper.
Frankly, the comparison that makes more sense to me is "American Dreams," only this is the 10 p.m. not-so-family-friendly version of that departed-but-adored NBC drama. "Mad Men" is about bringing us into a period, but "The Playboy Club" is mostly concerned with inviting viewers to a party that we might otherwise have been excluded from.
For a while, it works fairly well.
Alan Taylor, who won an Emmy for "The Sopranos" and was nominated for another for helming the pilot for, yes, "Mad Men," directs the "Playboy Club" pilot with a careful eye for the superficial feel of the period. The hair, the costumes and the production design in "The Playboy Club" are all top notch and Taylor's camerawork is fully inclusive. We feel like we're peeking into corners and behind closed doors that even Playboy keyholders might not have gotten.
Just as "American Dreams" made a regular and often-pleasant gimmick out of having recognizable (and up-and-coming) contemporary artists appearing as artists from its period, "Playboy Club" features Ike and Tina Turner in the pilot and there have already been reports about variably notable singers dropping by to play the likes of Sam Cooke and Ray Charles. The inclusion of those real names (plus Hef, who is only seen from behind and may or may not have a relevant ongoing role), gives "The Playboy Club" a potentially fun "Ragtime"-type feel, if only we cared nearly as much about the fictional creations.
In a perfect world, I'm pretty sure that Maureen is supposed to be our eyes and ears in this world. She's the new girl and most of the dialogue that she's involved with is driven by rules and regulations of the Playboy Club, to say nothing of the more interesting unwritten rules of Bunny Etiquette. But she isn't. Even in the original pilot, background details on Maureen were scarce and a few seemingly telling notes, Maureen's love for master-of-reinvention Marilyn Monroe, have been trimmed.
In their place, we get a few more scenes highlighting Nick Dalton's legal practice and a couple freshly added sequences between Cibrian and Troy Garrity. Nearly every added scene plays up the idea of Nick Dalton as a White Knight, which only makes him duller.
It's a strange piece of recalibration that makes "The Playboy Club" much less dramatically satisfying. What would make a former mob lawyer go legit and crave political office? Ummm... That's not a question that would keep me up at night. What would make a girl in the 1960s flee home and become a Playboy Club Bunny? And in what circumstances would this make her an aspirational figure? And what other walks of life do the other Bunnies come from that would make this new world, which comes across as a fairly sleazy, but not really depraved, seem like a huge step up? Well those are questions that I can't instantly answer without putting on my creative writing cap and therefore, those are the questions that interest me more. I wish they interested the "Playboy Club" creative team a bit more.
You see, Cibrian is dull, albeit no more or less so than on "Tilt," "Third Watch," "Invasion," "Vanished" and the two seconds of "CSI: Miami" that I accidentally watch him on.
And the Bunnys aren't dull. Heard doesn't have an expressive voice, but when Maureen gets lost in the Bunny mystique and becomes a part of their world, she's properly transformed. Naughton, who played a darned similar character on "Mad Men," is more dynamic and Benanti and Dewan Tatum both supply additional energy. Getting to know these women is far more important to me and also to the "Playboy Club" agenda, than getting to know Nick Dalton, but the pilot isn't convinced of this. I'd also rather spend time with Krumholtz's character, because there's no conundrum in seeing how a Nick Dalton became a prince in this swinging kingdom, but Billy Morton's place invites possibly intriguing questions.
"The Playboy Club" looks great and it offers all the eye-candy any viewer could want, but it fails the most basic test of elementary rhetoric. In high school, you're taught to write a five paragraph essay. It's elementary, but it works: Intro paragraph, three paragraphs supporting your intro thesis, closing paragraph tying together the points you made and reaffirming that thesis. "The Playboy Club" begins with "Anything could happen to anybody... or any-bunny" and ends with "Bunnies were some of the only women in the world who could be anyone they wanted to be." But currently, that's not what was proven by the middle of the pilot. Instead, the middle of the pilot now seems to prove that if you're a good-looking white man in 1960s Chicago, the sky's the limit. I don't need to watch a TV show for that knowledge.
[On an unrelated side note, no matter what your opinion on the quality of "The Playboy Club" happens to be, I think the pilot will quickly put an end to the "indecency" part of the Parents Television Council's whining. There is no content in this pilot that's anywhere in the vicinity of anything that the FCC would consider even slightly out of the 10 p.m. norm. That will disappoint the PTC and it will also disappoint those hungry for some scandalous 10 p.m. boundary pushing. Oh well.]
"The Playboy Club" premieres on Monday, September 19 at 10 p.m. on NBC.