(episode by Chad Hodge)
The Playboy Club caught a lot of heat before the show even aired on “decency” grounds and feminist ones. With the pilot now having finally aired on Monday, the rest of us have a chance to weigh on in on these issues. (At least for as long as the show lasts — the pilot drew five million viewers, not a great number, especially for a show as plainly expensive as this pilot was. (
I’m told by a friend, though, that future episodes are being shot at a tiny fraction of the cost, even relative to the usual pilot:series ratios. EDIT: whoops, the friend was talking about Pan Am, not this show.))
A quick plot summary first: Maureen is a new Bunny in Chicago’s Playboy Club in 1963 who accidentally kills Bruno Bianchi, a top mobster. Nick Dalton, a keyholder and lawyer with political aspirations is involved and helps her cover it up. Nick is dating Carol-Lynne, a Bunny at the start of the show who, through some presumably deft off-screen maneuvering, takes a position as Mother Bunny, supervising the Bunnies and making sure they conform to her standards. In the course of the cover-up, it appears that Maureen and Nick have sex, so Carol-Lynne breaks up with Nick.
These are the main plots that will likely sustain the show through the course of the season (and series), but other subplot strands were introduced: there’s Alice, a secret lesbian married to a gay man (played by Firefly‘s Sean Maher, happily) who use their Playboy money to start a local chapter of the Mattachine Society. There’s Brenda, who wants to be the first, in her words, “chocolate centerfold.” There’s Janie, a Bunny who is dating the club’s bartender, Max, who wants to marry Janie, but Janie, for reasons unknown that don’t seem to simply be about money, refuses. There’s even David Krumholtz as Billy, the club’s manager, who is outmaneuevered by Carol-Lynne in the pilot, and who might have some conflict with her going forward.
That’s a lot of potential story! The drama landscape on network television has been extremely unimpressive lately, but there’s a lot to admire about the framework Chad Hodge has set up, leaving the writers room to balance all these different characters and stories and motivations throughout the season. The pilot wasn’t perfectly executed, of course — the dialogue in particular was not particularly good, especially in its occasional screams to the audience that hey here’s a theme we’re setting up to explore watch out for this one!
I’m also a little concerned about the acting. Eddie Cibrian as Nick is exactly what everyone has said: Jon Hamm Lite. His intonation and facial expressions are so clearly influenced by Hamm’s Mad Men work as to come near to parody. Unfortunately for Cibrian, he doesn’t have Hamm’s effortless smolder, the ability to make you melt when he looks at you and to want him even more when he looks away.
While Cibrian is the only actor whose work I’d say was actually problematic, nobody else distinguished themselves. I’m a giant David Krumholtz fan, and I do like Sean Maher, but their roles are too tiny to do anything but exactly what they’re asked to do. Amber Heard, as Maureen, is probably adequate. Laura Benanti (Carol-Lynne) does have some steel and bite, but I didn’t get the sense that she brought anything that wasn’t on the page.
Overall, then, the show, considered from a purely internal perspective, as a piece of commercial art in a vacuum, seems solid, with the potential to be more compelling over the course of a season than most network fare. But of course we don’t and shouldn’t evaluate art in a vacuum, and Hugh Hefner’s narration (yep) explicitly raises questions of feminism, so these issues must be addressed, at least briefly.
First, real quick, as to decency: there’s a lot of cleavage on the show. I’m not exactly offended by cleavage, although watching with my wife, I was distinctly aware of a lack of corresponding male eye-candy. Eddie Cibrian is attractive enough, but he’s just one man — no offense to David Krumholtz, but I don’t hear a lot of clamor for him to have his shirt off more often.
Now, to the more important topic. Not least because I am a man, I am not competent to define what is and is not a feminist act. I think at the very least, though, we can say that dressing in skimpy clothes to make a lot of money from leering men, if it’s empowering at all, is empowering in a problematic way that would not be universally lauded. And let’s be clear about something: the show does not discuss the feminist aspect of the Bunnies’ work from a balanced perspective — Gloria Steinem does not appear in the pilot. Hefner’s voiceover at the close of the hour explicitly adopts the “this was the only way for women to get ahead at this time and these women should be applauded for doing it” position, one that is not only historically questionable but ethically untenable as well — is it really a victory over the “women stay home and have babies” environment to put on a corset and prance around for the enjoyment of men?
Here’s the problem: did you notice the production companies involved in the show? One of them is Playboy Enterprises. This show isn’t going to get Hef’s sign-off by presenting competing arguments to his longstanding position on female empowerment. The best the writers can probably hope for is to drop the feminist element entirely. This isn’t as good as replacing it with a frank discussion of sexuality and gender power dynamics, but the reality of biting the hand that feeds means there’s only so much we can ask.
I’m not uninterested in watching further, but there is something to be said for the political statements to be made from not giving a show with such paternalistic views of female power any buzz or advertising eyeballs.