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Fall's Troubled Dramas

Matt Dinerstein/NBC

The Playboy Club (NBC, Sept. 19, 10 p.m.) is one of two new dramas (ABC's Pan Am being the other) that tries to cash in on the retro feel of Mad Men but has neither the ambition, writing nor acting to make such a comparison anything more than a chuckle-heavy notion.

It begins with Hugh Hefner narrating what the scene in Chicago was all about back then: "A place where anything could happen to anybody -- or any Bunny."

Ugh.

It's hard to imagine there's still an allure to the '60s Playboy Club swingin' lifestyle, but if there is, Playboy Club hasn't illuminated it. Sure, it was a great party and you could make great tips ("I make more than my father," says one Bunny), but in attempting to show that it wasn't all glamour inside (a fair assumption and one the writers should be given credit for noting), the show undercuts what it seems to be trying hard to sell: that the club was a place for female empowerment.

"It was the early '60s, and the Bunnies were some of the only women who could be anything they wanted to be," intones Hef.

Hmmm.

But let's not digress. The real woes of Playboy Club lie within its status as a Mad Men also-ran. Casting Eddie Cibrian as the lead only muddies the water because every time you look at him and every time he utters a line, it's a second-rate Don Draper you see and hear.

He's Nick Dalton, Chicago's top attorney. A Mob boss who was groping and then apparently trying to kill the hot new Bunny, Maureen (Amber Heard), is accidentally killed in the Playboy Club, and Nick, who has old Mob ties, helps her dispose of the body. This intrigue will allow the writers to do more than focus on women dressed in Bunny costumes.

But the souped-up premise doesn't save the writing. A bartender at the club is annoyed that his Bunny girlfriend -- who has no interest in marrying him because she's having too much fun -- gets hit on all the time by lecherous men. He complains to the general manager, Billy (David Krumholtz, trying his hand at drama instead of comedy). Billy says he had the same problem with his Bunny girlfriend: "Yeah, that's why I married her -- got her pregnant and ugly."

See -- empowerment.

Then there's this: "A girl can't be a Bunny forever," says Hef's first Bunny hire, Carol Lynne (Laura Benanti, the best thing going for the show). So she becomes -- no kidding -- the "Bunny Mother," in charge of whipping the girls into shape and, um, empowering them somehow.

The whole thing quickly becomes hokey and a grind. Blame goes consistently to the writing, from one Bunny reiterating how awesome Nick is -- up to and including the rumor that he has a big penis -- to another Bunny scolding an allegedly prudish married Bunny by saying she waves her wedding ring around "like a man could get electrocuted if he so much as glances in the region of your kitty cat."

Oooh, edgy, NBC.

Is there no end to the vampires-and-witches thing? Apparently not. The CW's The Secret Circle (Sept. 15, 9 p.m.) is a teen witch-fest that is dumb and obvious. It makes sense from a programming and demographic point of view, but that doesn't make the series any less leaden and hokey. Secret Circle star Britt Robertson (who also starred in the CW's failed Life Unexpected) is an actress with real promise and deserves material to match it. But here she plays Cassie, the last member of the "six families" -- whose presence increases the power of a gang of teen witches.

"I can't deal with any more of this right now," says Cassie. Tell me about it. Later she says, "Make it stop!" -- again echoing the sentiments of the sane.

CBS' Unforgettable (Sept. 20, 10 p.m.), starring Poppy Montgomery (Without a Trace), is one of those procedurals CBS cranks out during disco naps, and it will probably go on for a lifetime. But this one is particularly tedious as it centers on a former cop's medically rare but true ability to remember every detail of every day (except how her sister died in the woods when they were younger, an event that haunts her). Montgomery is almost always memorable in what she does, even if her Australian accent creeps out more times than you would expect in the pilot. Here, she's paired with Dylan Walsh, who plays an old flame who runs into her while investigating a crime. He knows her unique gifts -- and yet, it's re-creating those gifts that dooms Unforgettable. Once called upon to remember every single important detail of a day or scene, Montgomery's character basically goes mute and looks around in slow motion while the camera replays what we've already seen. It's a new kind of plodding -- so slow, you are almost begging her to stay retired so you don't have to witness her gifts in action again.

Better, more intriguing and genuinely fun -- though you might worry about its long-term appeal -- is ABC's Revenge (Sept. 21, 10 p.m.), starring Emily VanCamp (Everwood, Brothers and Sisters) as a young girl who returns to the Hamptons to exact -- you guessed it -- revenge on all the people who wronged her father when she was growing up there.

Her chief foil is a willfully wicked Madeleine Stowe, who exerts iron-fist control over Hamptons society. The pilot has a killing and a comeuppance and hints of more to come -- and VanCamp is a nice combo of sweet/sexy and ice-cold. "This is not a story about forgiveness," she says in voice-over. Well, OK then. The obvious question here is, how many people can you actually kill in the Hamptons? Her circle of choices appears to be in single digits, so there will have to be some complications or a lot of stalling to make this work long term. But the pilot is enjoyable enough that you might add it to your DVR as a solidly soapy option.

Giovani Rufino/CBS
Courtsy of The CW