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On the surface, The Playboy Club looks more like an opportunity to showcase women dressed in sexy bunny outfits and celebrate all of the glamour the elite of 1960’s society had to offer, and in that respect, it does just that. But the NBC drama actually offers a bit more intrigue beyond the bunny-tails and perfectly styled hair.
Brought to us by Brian Grazer (24, Friday Night Lights, Lie to Me), The Playboy Club is a drama series that looks inside Chicago’s legendary Playboy Club during the early ’60’s. Amber Heard plays Maureen, a new Bunny who finds herself involved in the accidental death of one of the club’s members. Coming to her aid is the dreamy, confident up-and-comer Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian). He’s one of the city’s top attorneys with aspirations of taking his career even further. His current romantic interest is Carol-Lynne (Laura Benanti), a veteran Bunny who makes up with charisma, talent and the right connections, what she lacks in the youthfulness of some of the newer Bunnies around the club. Jenna Dean, Naturi Naughton, and Leah Renee play three of the other Bunnies.
The pilot episode doesn’t waste a lot of time getting into the thick of things, and for good reason. While on the surface, the Playboy Club is a glamorous spot for Chicago’s VIP males, behind the scenes, things are anything but perfect. Carol-Lynne is working hard to secure her place within the club and in Nick Dalton’s life, while the other Bunnies have dreams of their own. Brenda (Naturi Naughton), for example, wants to be the first African-American playboy centerfold. And Alice (Leah Renee) is married and keeping a secret from everyone. If there's one shared trait among all of the characters, it's ambition, and that's one of the more intriguing aspects of each of the characters as we begin to get to know them.
Finally, David Krumholtz plays Billy Morton, the club’s general manager and the man who is often (but not always) calling the shots. Krumholtz caught my attention nearly two decades ago when he appeared in the comedy film Life With Mikey. He’s popped up in film (The Santa Clause movies, Serenity, Superbad to name a few) and television (Freaks & Geeks, ER) and has always stood out as one of Hollywood's valuable, but underrated actors. He’s a big reason I hope this series works out, if only to see him in a semi-starring role on television for a while.
Looking at The Playboy Club, it’s hard not to make comparisons to another drama series set in the ’60’s. NBC’s drama is paced a bit faster than AMC’s Mad Men, however that’s to be expected when comparing a network TV show to a cable series. There’s also a lot less smoking, despite the amount of cigarettes being sold by the Bunnies at the club. As for the sex appeal, regardless of the name and the subject of the show, TPC isn’t exactly pushing the boundaries as far as sex on network TV goes. The air is thick with sexual tension, but the actual sexy-scenes in the pilot are limited to one brief but steamy moment. Parental discretion is advised, nonetheless.
If there’s one weak point in the pilot, it’s the attempt to bring Hugh Hefner into the story without actually showing his face. Not including the voice-over, Hef’s appearance comes in the form a Seinfeldesque Steinbrenner moment, where we only see the back of him. It’s a bit unnecessary. If they’re going to bring Hef in as an on-screen character, it might work better if they went all out and made up their own version of Hugh Hefner. Otherwise, leave him out of the picture entirely (or have him exist by reference only). Half-way comes off a bit silly. On the subject of impersonations, the show’s take on the ’60’s versions of two music icons of the era added to the tone of the pilot, and I expect we’ll be seeing more legendary “guest appearances” at the Playboy Club as the series goes on.
The Playboy Club offers a lot of shiny things to look at, but beyond that, there is a story beginning to develop and characters that, while not quite as original as they are nice to look at, are interesting and charismatic enough to carry the series. Whether or not it's enough to engage an audience among the onslaught of new and returning dramas this fall remains to be seen. I had the bar set relatively low on this one, which might be why The Playboy Club surprised me, however the acting is good, the writing works, the cast is exceptionally pretty, and the pilot offers just enough hints of interesting thing to come to have me intrigued enough to tune in again.
The Playboy Club premieres Monday, September 19th at 10:00 p.m. ET on NBC.