September 19, 2011 6:00am PT by Lesley Goldberg
'The Playboy Club' Showrunner: 'There's a Perception of the Show That's False'
NBC’s freshman drama The Playboy Club has had a bumpy road in getting to the screen.
The project has had the Parents Television Council up in arms twice – even before the first episode unspooled. First, the PTC took issue with nudity clauses included in its actors’ contracts and, more recently, over co-star Laura Benanti gracing a retro cover of Playboy magazine that they claimed “mainstreamed pornography.”
In addition, women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem, who went undercover in the club the series is based on, claimed the series “normalizes a passive dominant idea of gender” and called for a boycott.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with showrunner Chad Hodge to discuss whether or not the series really empowers women, how much Hugh Hefner will be involved and whether or not the controversy surrounding the series that was NBC’s first drama pilot order of the 2011-12 season will help or hurt the show.
THR: The big story coming out of the Television Critics’ Association’s press tour was that The Playboy Club is empowering for women. Is it a show that empowers women? How?
Hodge: (Laughs.) I think that story was a little overblown. All that I meant when I said that was that the Bunnies at that time were different from most women in that they made more money, which when you have more money, you’re able to do more things – especially if it’s your own money. What the show really is, is a sexy, fun soap that’s really glittery and fabulous and has a tone to it – a tiny bit of a pop tone, which is very intentional.
When I set out to create this show, the first word out of my mouth was “entertaining.” I want it to be entertaining, I want to be the first show you watch when you get home and turn on your DVR because it’s that fun show you look for. What came out of TCA, given the nature of the questions that we were getting and the controversy that was swirling at that time, people thought that the show had lofty intellectual ambitions in some way. Yes, the characters are deep and the stories are intricate and it’s about real people, but the goals of this show are not political in any way. It’s not supposed to be a history lesson.
When I talked about it being empowering to women, it’s empowering to women who want to use it for themselves, if that’s what they choose. Because the line of questioning got so serious, I think there was a perception that we were trying to do something politically ambitious or make a statement or make this a show about empowering women, which sounds super boring to me. That sounds like a documentary, which this certainly is not. This is more like Chicago, Moulin Rouge and All That Jazz, Desperate Housewives. This is a fun, sexy soap.
THR: Gloria Steinem has called for a boycott, calling the show a “passive, dominant idea of gender.” Considering her experience working at the Playboy Club does press like that help or hurt a freshman show?
Hodge: I guess we’ll see. I think there’s a perception of the show that’s false. The controversy that’s come from both the Left and the Right is coming from people who have admitted that they haven’t seen the show. They’re commenting on Playboy [the magazine] rather than us. It can only help when your show is talked about. What is great is that people have all these differing opinions and points of view on Playboy and if it’s a good or bad thing, that’s inherently dramatized in our show. These women talk about these very things, these characters. And they have lives outside the club. The show is not just about them as Bunnies, though I’d argue that there’s nothing wrong with a woman using her sexuality to get what she wants if she wants to. That’s her choice. There are different brands of feminism and I don’t think it should be boxed into any one version. These women, especially when I spoke to former Bunnies, many of them say, “I have all the respect in the world for Gloria Steinem and she’s one of my heroes and did more for women than anybody else, but she got this wrong.” I heard that from several former Bunnies.
THR: Have you had any contact with Steinem?
Hodge: No. I’d love to talk to her once she’s seen the show. I’ve read her account of being a Playboy Bunny, it was one of the first things I read [after signing on to do the show]. Interestingly enough, it’s pretty tame. It’s called I Was a Playboy Bunny and from what I’d heard about her experience and take, I was prepared for something so scathing and when I read it … so their feet hurt, big deal.
THR: There’s a nudity clause in the contract for the cast. Is that rare for a network show?
Hodge: I don’t know what other shows have and don’t have when it comes to nudity clauses. It was something that was certainly not requested by the network. The show completely adheres to all FCC broadcast standards and we certainly don’t have time to shoot two versions of the show: one with boobs and one without, so I don’t think you’ll be seeing any nudity on the show.
THR: So speculation that the DVD will include nudity is incorrect?
Hodge: Tonally, it’s not really in the world of the show. If this was a show about Playboy magazine -- and the stories were driven by that -- you’d have scenes at centerfold shoots. If this took place at the Playboy magazine offices, for example, that would be a whole different show that should be on cable and there would have to be nudity otherwise you wouldn’t be telling the right story. This is about the Playboy Bunnies at the club, which was related to Playboy magazine because it was done under the umbrella of the same company, but other than that the rules that existed and the way of live as a Playboy Bunny had really nothing to do with nudity – in fact it explicitly didn’t have anything to do with nudity.
THR: The Parents Television Council’s complaints and NBC’s Salt Lake City affiliate refusing to air the series …
Hodge: I’m sure they’re going to beg to air it soon (laughs). I think once they see the show and where future episodes can go, there’s really nothing to be concerned about.
THR: Hugh Hefner’s voice was featured in the pilot, how will he be involved going forward?
Hodge: His voice will not continue to be part of the show, it’s only in the pilot to introduce and kick-off our world. He’s part of the show going forward, we don’t use his voice but we still will see him every now and then in the way that you do at the end of the pilot: you see his back at the desk.
THR: He’s Charlie from Charlie’s Angels.
Hodge: Essentially, yes. But he’s not always at that desk like Charlie is; he moves around. Sometimes we’ll see him in the club – from the back – and he’s talked about. You could never tell the story of anything to do with Playboy without acknowledging Hef in some way. He’s a presence in the show, largely off-screen. When he is on-screen, it’s from the back, side, a silhouette, because it doesn’t tell his specific story. He’s not a character with his own story line.
THR: Will that ever change? And was the decision not to have Hef be a regular character intentional?
Hodge: The decision was intentional – for now. I can never say never. Who knows where the series could go, especially if it goes on for a long time. For now, the stories are focused on the Bunnies and Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian). If this was about the magazine, Hef would be your No. 1 character.
THR: How much of a role will he have with the series?
Hodge: He is definitely involved. Alta Loma Entertainment is Playboy’s production arm and they’re executive producers with us. We go to them for production design questions, accuracy and historical questions. They get all our outlines and scripts, but I can’t remember the last time they gave a note. They’re very hands-off; they’re not trying to steer story or make Playboy look good. It’s not managed in that way by Playboy.
THR: Did Alta Loma have a hand in the decision not to feature Hef as a character?
Hodge: He didn’t want to make it his story. There wasn’t any argument against not having him and I think he was happy about that. He really likes how he’s used in the series and told me that. He likes the amount he’s in there and the way he’s depicted.
THR: You’ve already tapped Voice winner Javier Colon, Colbie Caillat and Raphael Saadiq to guest star. Any additional musical performers you’ve got your eye on?
Hodge: Going forward, we’ll be portraying different people: Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dusty Springfield. None are set in stone but I look forward to having more people like Raphael, Colbie and Javier on the show. We have different people in mind but we really want to get Bruno Mars on the show and he really wants to do it.
THR: With Playboy Club and ABC’s Pan Am both set in the 1960s, any chance of a crossover?
Hodge: I would not be opposed to it. That would be hilarious, but I doubt our studios would agree. (Laughing) That would be so funny: the Bunnies all board the Pan Am flight or the stewardesses all come to the Playboy Club. That’s a good idea and I love Sony. I should give them a call!
The Playboy Club premieres Monday on NBC.