Like the empire that inspired it, NBC's "The Playboy Club" is built on goofy ideas about how grown-ups act, disguised in a veneer of sophistication. It could use a little less seriousness and bit more camp.
Because for all the swinging '60s decor, Chicago-stereotype boxes checked (Mobsters! Politics! Music!) and — oh right — beautiful women in bunny suits, the show isn't much fun. At least not in its pilot, which packs more into 42 minutes than those bunnies pack into their — nevermind. Too easy.
It could get a lot better when it gets past its first-episode jitters, as well as any worries about offending early objectors like Gloria Steinem and a Salt Lake City NBC affiliate. Both are giving the show way more credit than it deserves as a potential cultural force. Its shallow attempts at seriousness make it more dismissable, and it will have a better chance of influencing society if it develops a better sense of humor.
Like ABC's "Pan Am" and "Charlie's Angels," the show tries to justify its skimpy outfits by making the women who wear them very serious. The logic goes something like this: There were so few opportunities for women in the '60s — "Man Men" heroine Peggy Olson being the rare exception — that becoming a bunny or stewardess was empowering.
Sure, we'll pretend to unreservedly agree with that, for the sake of getting the story underway. But the story is a little too busy.
It starts well enough, as we meet fresh new bunny Maureen, played by the appealing Amber Heard, just settling into her new job. We soon learn she's one of those "Karate Kid"-style protagonists, who far outshines her colleagues despite a total lack of experience: Within seconds of a mobster getting grabby, she manages to dispatch him in the most sexyviolent way possible: with a stiletto.
Handsome attorney and Playboy Club fixture Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian) quickly comes to the rescue, informing her that she's killed the wrong guy, and helps her dispose of the corpse. This forms a bond between them, but one that can't be consummated over the cocktails and jazz you've read (right? read?) so much about in the pages of Playboy magazine. Unfortunately, he has a thing with veteran Bunny Carol-Lynne, played by Tony winner Laura Benanti.
Benanti is the Joan Holloway to Heard's Peggy, or Gina Gerschon's nemesis to Elizabeth Berkley's character in "Showgirls." The show makes the wise move of making clear that Carol-Lynn may be a help as well as an antagonist to Maureen, depending on how they play their captivating game of bunny chess. The two women are the best reasons to watch the show.
The initial conflict is probably enough to get things rolling, but creator Chad Hodge takes the see-what-will-stick approach to TV pilots by layering in subplots about Cibrian's boring, something-to-do-with-the-mob past, his political ambitions, the search for the stilleto'd mobster's body, and an underground society of hero closeted gays. There's also plenty of music, first from the very charming Benanti and then from stand-ins for Ike and Tina Turner.
The musical touches are just the kind of unselfconscious goofiness the show could use more of — they feel as tacked on as the performaces at the Boar's Nest that used to end episodes of the "Dukes of Hazzard." And that's fun.
The show will improve if it can loosen up to be a little more "Dukes of Hazzard" and a little less "Mad Men": First, because Daisy never monologued about Appalachian poverty to make up for those shorts. And second, because it poses no threat whatsoever to "Mad Men" in terms of storytelling, social commentary, or acting. (Then again, few shows do.)
"The Playboy Club" does do a good job of swiping some aesthetics from "Mad Men," but the "Mad Men" cast still wear better clothes — and slightly more of them.
"The Playboy Club" airs at 10/9c on NBC.