You’ll only watch ‘Playboy’ for the pictures
BY LORI RACKL TV Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org September 15, 2011 6:50PM
Maureen (Amber Heard) stands over the bloody mess formerly known as Bruno Bianchi (Randy Steinmeyer) after the handsy mob kingpin suffers death by stiletto in Monday’s premiere of “The Playboy Club.”
‘THE PLAYBOY CLUB’ ★★1/2
9 to 10 p.m. Mondays on WMAQ-Channel 5
Updated: November 9, 2011 4:21PM
Bottles of champagne are popping. The band’s playing. Glamorous girls sporting little satin corsets and lots of skin serve smiling customers while a brunette bombshell belts out a toe-tapping version of “Chicago.”
Welcome to the club.
“Going into the Playboy Club was a fantasy, and I wanted the show to feel like that,” said Chad Hodge, 34, creator/writer/executive producer of the NBC’s retro melodrama — not to mention broadcast TV’s most controversial addition to the fall lineup.
Set in 1961 in Hugh Hefner’s legendary Gold Coast watering hole, “The Playboy Club” revolves around bunnies with ambitions bigger than their bust lines. There’s also a dark, handsome alpha male with a shady past and a bright future named Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian, “CSI: Miami”), who’s basically “Mad Men’s” Don Draper lite. Make that ultralite.
Despite Cibrian (Jon) Hamm-ing it up for the camera, “Playboy Club’s” producers insist their show isn’t a “Mad Men” ripoff.
“The only thing they have in common is the era,” said Hodge, a Highland Park native.
Producers also insist the show isn’t demeaning to women. In fact, they say it’s empowering. And so does Hef himself, in this voiceover: “It was the early ’60s, and the bunnies were some of the only women in the world who could be anyone they wanted to be.”
I have no doubt the program paints an overly pretty picture of what it was like to sling cocktails in a rib-crushing costume. It also comically overstates Hef’s cultural import.
“The world was changing and we were the ones changing it, one bunny at a time,” boasts another voiceover from pipe-puffing Hefner, who you’d think went on to invent the Internet and decode the human genome.
But let’s face it: No one’s going to mistake “The Playboy Club” for a Ken Burns documentary. It’s a prime-time soap opera whose saving grace is lots of eye candy, captivating production design and some stellar singing courtesy of regular cast members including Tony Award-winning Laura Benanti, who plays aging “bunny mother” Carol-Lynne. (In a smart marketing move, the show will feature modern-day musicians making guest appearances as big-name entertainers of yesteryear. Colbie Caillat is slated to play Lesley Gore and sing “It’s My Party” in an upcoming episode.)
Hodge, the show’s creator, is “a huge fan of musicals.” That’s evident in the aforementioned opening sequence, which is worth watching if for no other reason than ’60s nostalgia and Benanti’s rendition of “Chicago.”
For “Playboy Club’s” first few minutes, at least, it’s all fun and games … until someone gets hurt. That someone is Bruno Bianchi, the boss of the Chicago Outfit. The mobster’s game of grab-hands in the club’s basement with Maureen (Amber Heard), the newest bunny in Hef’s hutch, lands him a stiletto heel in the jugular.
Dalton also gets his hands dirty in this unfortunate mob murder — unfortunate because we’ve seen the ensuing cover-up played out countless times and in far more compelling ways.
The crime plot isn’t the only element lacking originality and depth. Many of the characters feel all too familiar, especially Carol-Lynne (Benanti), the savvy, seen-it-all veteran who’s jealous of the new girl. That new girl would be Maureen, a Marilyn Monroe wannabe from Fort Wayne, Ind., who’s still wet behind the rabbit ears and trying to make it in the big city. Throw in Dalton and you have your obligatory love triangle.
Meanwhile, the token black bunny, Brenda (Naturi Naughton), longs to be Playboy magazine’s “first chocolate centerfold.” Bunny Janie (Jenna Dewan Tatum) is the wild child dating the overly earnest bartender Max (Wes Ramsey), who wants to get married but Janie says she can’t — and she can’t tell him why. I suppose we’ll eventually find out, but I already don’t care.
Turns out the bunny with the most compelling storyline (I won’t give it away) is Alice (Leah Renee), but her over-the-top naivete and general airheadedness at the club makes her character feel more like a caricature.
The bottom line is this isn’t a show you tune into for sophisticated narrative, innovative plot twists and complex characters. It’s a sexy, soapy period drama that’s as fluffy as the tails on its buxom stars’ backsides. Just like Hef’s famous magazine, the main appeal of “The Playboy Club” is the way it looks, not the stories it tells.