Sunday, September 25, 2011

Pilot Inspektor Tim: The Playboy Club

The show: The Playboy Club, Mondays on NBC

The premise in ten words or less? Chicago's Playboy Club in the 1960s, and gratuitous murder.

Any good? I've never really been part of the cult of Mad Men. I mean, I like Mad Men. I've seen all 52 episodes of Mad Men. But there are lots of other TV shows I prefer to Mad Men – past and present, network and cable, comedy and drama – and I never fail to grimace at TV critics offhandedly stating that it's the greatest show on television, if not in the history of television, as if it were an objective fact. I roared with approval at Friday Night Lights thrashing it in acting and writing at the latest Emmys.

But whatever problems I may have with Mad Men, one thing it does have is restraint, and supreme confidence in the depth of its characters being sufficient to anchor compelling drama. Granted, the last network show I saw display similar confidence was Lone Star, which Fox took into a back alley and executed after two episodes, but even so, it throws The Playboy Club into sharp and bitter contrast. The Playboy Club features its first attempted rape right around four minutes in, followed one minute later by its first spurting-blood murder and a few minutes after that by body-hiding shenanigans. That right there is not showing restraint.

I compare the shows because, however much the producers of The Playboy Club like to pretend differently, their show would not exist without Mad Men. It's trying hard to tap into the same 60s chic – smoking, drinking, retro clothes, retro cars, social regressivism and all – and the main male character, Nick Dalton, is modeled after Don Draper to a laughable, almost sad degree. One of the show's leads, Naturi Naughton, was even on Mad Men, playing a Playboy Bunny in both shows. But, in trying to do Mad Men except with murder and the mob and prettier, younger actresses, The Playboy Club shows a grave misunderstanding of what made that show tic in the first place.

And it's a shame, because, unlike the Parents Television Council (more on this in a second), I actually wanted to like this show. Mad Men ripoff or no, I was rooting for it to succeed if only for having the balls to try something off the beaten path for network TV, with nary a cop or doctor to be found.

And it does do a number of things right. A lot of money was injected into the project and they chose their director well (Alan Taylor of Rome, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones and, would you look at that, Mad Men fame) and the results are all on the screen. It looks like a million bucks; easily the most sumptuously designed, visually pleasing pilot I've seen so far this season. The cast includes Amber Heard and David Krumholtz and Firefly's Sean Maher, and some of the actors I'm less familiar with like Laura Benanti as the Bunny house mother also do good work. The characters are all pretty well-defined in the available 42-minute window and some potentially engaging interpersonal conflicts are introduced. But that murder is just such a silly and juvenile way to kick things off, and it's hard to get past that.

The other huge problem is Eddie Cibrian as the previously mentioned Nick Dalton, who is, I guess (going by the billing order), supposed to be the main character. Outside of his cringe-inducing wannabe resemblance to Don Draper, he has this agonizingly disconnected story going on about being a lawyer and trying to clean up the mob, and it's just so not what I was interested in going into the show. Shouldn't the idea be to follow the Bunnies, especially with minor movie star Amber Heard as our viewpoint into that unique sorority? I mean, who the fuck wants to follow some slicked-hair lawyer who happens to hang out at the Playboy Club a lot and sleep with one of the Bunnies? One episode in and he's already my least favorite protagonist on television. What an utterly bizarre miscalculation.

I feel I should mention that, having now actually watched the show, the Parents Television Council hysteria preceding its debut (including the show being briefly banned in Utah) is more hilarious than ever. With acknowledgement that pornography exists and women walking around in the equivalent of one-piece bathing suits being the extent of the show's "adult" material, this is basically the least racy version of a Playboy show you could possibly imagine. 2 Broke Girls is more salacious.

Will I watch again? That such an ambitious, pricey, heavily-hyped drama premiered to 5.02 million viewers all but assures The Playboy Club's fate as one of this season's first freshman casualties (I'd be surprised to see it complete its 13-episode season run, but, this being ratings-starved NBC, it's not impossible), so I'll probably keep watching out of sheer curiosity, since I'm not likely to be watching long.

Premise: B-

Execution: C+

Performances: B

Potential: C+


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