In response to the success of AMC’s Mad Men, the major networks have chosen to assault us this year with a slew of sixties period pieces, each dealing with gender roles in one way or the other. The strangest among them has got to be NBC’s The Playboy Club. The knockoff drama has already garnered quite a bit controversy, prompting female lead Amber Heard to ask that we watch the show before judging it. Her request seems reasonable to me if naively optimistic.
Hugh Hefner is a complex figure to say the least. On the one hand, the man made substantial contributions to the civil rights movement, fighting segregation and prejudicial censorship in all facets of the entertainment industry. On the other, he created Playboy, a multi-billion dollar enterprise that helped mainstream the objectification of women to the point of making softcore pornography as commonplace as McDonald’s. If this dichotomy doesn’t strike you as fascinating TV material, then we belong on different Nielsen charts.
By the way, the series centers on the first branch of the Playboy Club in Chicago. It was founded in 1960 and served as Hefner’s primary tool to promote a sense of status with the dignified act of gawking at nudie pictures. Soon, the franchise would spread across the globe. Playboy Clubs ran strong for several decades until a line-wide shutdown in 1991, reflecting a time when feminist protests reached an all-time high. They resurfaced in 2006, presumably reflecting a time when stripper pole aerobics reached an all-time high.
I mention all this because the pilot assumes we already know about the Playboy Club and its cultural significance. We’re never told exactly what the club represents, how many exist like it, why the female employees all sleep at a mansion, or how other women feel about the phenomenon. Only Brenda “the Chocolate Bunny” (Naturi Naughton) ever mentions a wider context, popping up every now and then to rave about the equal opportunity awesomeness that is Playboy. Unfortunately, the token character doesn’t come off as a genuine African American so much as a Hefner sounding board. In fact, she’s the one bunny not to get a subplot of her own. Whoops.
In fairness, the episode hints we’ll get some of that historical goodness in coming weeks, what with Alice the Sweet Bunny (Leah Renee) helping to fund the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay rights organisations in America. Besides, I understand the producers not wanting to hammer the audience with social issues right off the bat. You first want to hook the viewers, seduce them with the promise of steamy melodrama. Mind you, if your intent is not to challenge or offend, you might consider starting your show with something other than an attempted rape.
It doesn’t help that the scene is handled with the sensibility of a handkerchief made out of sandpaper, taking forever to get to the point, which is to say attorney Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian) rescuing Heard’s damsel-in-distress character, Maureen the Gamy Bunny. The onscreen sexual assault, you see, turns out little more than a plot device, an excuse for the mob to come sniffing around and for Nick’s girlfriend, Carol-Lynne (Laura Benanti), to suspect him of having an affair.
If this represents the level of taste we can expect from the writers, I’d rather they never tackle the complicated issues surrounding Hefner’s legacy. It’s a shame, really. Despite its strong cast and impressive production values, The Playboy Club needed to hit the ground running in order to survive the pressure from all them public policy groups. As it stands, I can’t imagine the series lasting more than a few weeks before getting the axe. Until then, I may be watching Brigitte Berman’s documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel instead.