The Playboy Club: TV Review
Sept. 19, 10 p.m. (NBC)
Eddie Cibrian, Amber Heard, Laura Benanti
NBC's new drama undercuts what it seems to be trying hard to sell: that the club was a place for female empowerment, writes Tim Goodman.
The Playboy Club 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."
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.
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.