September 27, 2011

THE SKED’S PILOT + 1 REVIEW: “The Playboy Club”

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot in the spring and production of episodes for the regular season:  a writing/producing team is hired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover in the off-season) give plenty of notes, both helpful and otherwise, and critics begin to rear their ugly heads.  The results can include changes to tone, pace, casting and even story.  Here at THE SKED, we’re going to look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular episodes of this year’s new series as well.
Previously… on THE PLAYBOY CLUB:  It’s the early 1960s, and somewhere in New York, Don Draper is creating his dazzling ad campaigns.  But in Chicago, the center of the world is the Playboy Club, Hugh Hefner’s monument to bunnily clad women.  Maureen (Amber Heard) is new to town and to the Club, but no sooner does she catch the eye of shady lawyer/aspiring politician Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian) than the local crime boss assaults her, resulting in a murder by high-heeled shoe.  Nick helps Maureen hide the body, and while the killing isn’t discovered, Nick’s girlfriend Carol-Lynne (Laura Benanti)–who happens to be Maureen’s supervisor at the Club–sees them together and dumps Nick.  Meanwhile, other bunnies include secret lesbian Alice (Leah Renee Cudmore), who has a marriage of convenience with a closeted gay man; Brenda (Naturi Naughton), who wants to be the first black Playboy Playmate; and Janie (Jenna Dewan-Tatum), who’s hiding a secret.

Episode 2:  The series, even more than the pilot, feels like a drama set 20 years earlier than it actually is.  The first regular episode, written by series creator Chad Hodge, dispenses for the most part with the civil rights story that at least made an appearance in the pilot; instead, we get a sequence where lesbian Alice tries to restrain her drool when Maureen asks her to help with photos for a prospective Playboy cover shoot.  (Alice, although a bunny herself, being suddenly barely able to control herself in the presence of female flesh.)  The show is nothing more than a backstage soap opera, and old-fashioned to a fault.

Instead of any social commentary at all, we get the continuation of the main storyline from the pilot:  Nick and Maureen worry about whether the gangster’s body is going to be found, while Carol-Lynn fumes over the attraction between the two. Although the episode flirts with the possibility of Carol-Lynn becoming a mentor to Maureen, by the end, even though Carol-Lynn’s taken Nick back, she’s making “scarlet woman” remarks about Maureen and darkly threatening her about the bad things that can happen to someone in Chicago.
In other plots, Nick moves forward with his run for State’s Attorney by bribing Mayor Daley, and Alice’s gay husband covers up a potentially incriminating photo of Nick with the dead gangster’s son in order to make a good impression on Nick.  (The husband’s whole family, Alice included, is ridiculously at the Club because her conservative father-in-law decided it would be a fun place to bring the wife and daughter-in-law.)  We also find out that Janie is on the run from an abusive husband, and that Brenda’s ambition is to buy real estate.  In another hugely unconvincing story beat, Maureen is so moved by the latter that when she wins the competition to be a Playboy cover girl and the money prize that goes with it, she secretly gives the cash to Brenda.

With the exception of Laura Benanti, who definitely classes up the joint, the acting doesn’t help much either.  Cibrian is starting to seem like Jason Sudeikis playing Jon Hamm, and Heard, while gorgeous, is inexpressive.  Compared to Pan Am (the pilot at least)–let’s not even mention Mad MenPlayboy Club looks pretty skimpy visually, too.  Most of the action takes place in the club itself, and while Pan Am‘s lush production design is wonderfully specific–you just know months of research have gone into duplicating every detail–everything in Playboy is a little dull and generic. 

In all, there’s no reason to feel better about The Playboy Club now that it’s in series mode, and a few causes to doubt it even more.  They did make one good decision, though:  no more arthritic narration from Hef himself.

Original VerdictIf Nothing Else Is On…

Pilot + 1:   Running Low On Potential

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."