One of my favorite parts of the fall TV season is predicting which TV shows will be cancelled first, and which will make it to at least a season. It’s a little depressing, I know, to be preemptively dooming shows to failure, but hey, when you spend enough time watching cancelled shows, you get better at calling them as you see them, deserved or otherwise.
Initially, I had some hopes for The Playboy Club, the first cancellation of the season and today’s Canned subject. When I first heard about it, I thought maybe we’d be in for some early-60s cool, a sort-of network-TV Mad Men, or at the very least something with high camp (read: entertainment) factor that grabbed you by the neck and forced you to watch. I mean, a TV show set in the infamous Playboy gentlemen’s club couldn’t be all bad, right? I mean, look at this trailer. Seems enticing enough:
Then, I watched a clip. Specifically, this clip:
I was…well, I was unimpressed. It looked too earnest to be silly and campy, but just a little too silly to be taken seriously. But hey, no need to damn the show based on one clip, I’d have to wait and see how it all panned out. Then the reviews started coming in, and they weren’t too great. I decided not to watch (though a large portion of my decision was based on the fact that I don’t have cable. I mean, c’mon, what am I gonna do, have a Playboy Club watching party at someone else’s house? Like any of my friends would let me host one of those. Like I would even want to host one of those), and a scant three episodes later, the show was off the air. Seven episodes were filmed, but who knows if those final four will ever see the light of day?
To the show’s credit, it doesn’t waste a whole lot of time on exposition before getting to the main action. The general plot is as follows: Bunny Maurine (Amber Heard) is new at Chicago’s own legendary Playboy Club. Hugh Hefner himself provides some voiceover narration, in which he makes himself sound like history’s greatest saint because he opened a place where men could wear suits and hit on hot women wearing creepy, infantile bunny costumes. She’s preyed upon by a licentious businessman, who attempts to force himself on her in the back room. She manages to defend herself, stabbing him in the neck with her stiletto (which either must have been whittled down to a sharp point or she has the kicking power of a goddamn kangaroo), killing him. She’s helped out by handsome lawyer Nick Dalton (Canned alum Eddie Cibrian, fresh off another win at the Jon Hamm look-alike contest), who helps her dispose of the body, hopefully sweeping it under the rug. That is, until that businessman’s (who actually turned out to be the head of the Mob) son comes snooping around trying to find out what happened. There’s also some other subplots, including Nick’s girlfriend Carol-Lynne (Laura Benanti), an older bunny (meaning like mid 30s, in bunny talk, that’s like 80) who’s none too pleased with Nick’s seemingly new attention to Maureen. There’s also Brenda (Naturi Naughton), a black bunny who dreams of being the first African-American centerfold, along with Alice (Leah Renee), a closeted lesbian in a marriage of convenience with Sean (fellow Canned alum Sean Maher), who are part of the burgeoning gay rights movement in the city. So as you can see, the show deals with a time of tumultuous political upheaval, and seems to set its titular club as the vanguard of social change in America.
That, in fact, could be one of the most obnoxious parts of the show. It’s so intent on proving to us that The Playboy Club is the Place that Dreams are Made Of ™ via ultra-corny monologues and wide-eyed bunnies sharing how working there has made their lives sooooo much better. Now, look, I’m not gonna say that Playboy is some sort of horrible organization that objectifies women and should be destroyed, but I’m also not gonna say that women dressing up in skimpy bunny suits is somehow empowering them. While, yes, Playboy probably was influential in changing sexual politics in America and breaking down taboos, the idea that the Playboy Club was at the forefront of feminism is downright laughable.
Probably my biggest problem, however, is with the characters. I know this show only got three episodes, and hopefully would have fleshed out its characters further as it went along, but in those three episodes we’re really not given anything to make them compelling and interesting and more than just stock characters. As I mentioned before, Cibrian does a passable Jon Hamm imitation, but his character has none of the mystery or complexity that makes Don Draper interesting. Most of the social issues brought up on the show such as racial politics or gay rights, seem there simply because the creators want us to know they’re aware they exist, and none of these marginalized characters are rounded out at all. So many conflicts repeat ad infinitum without any variation, and it just gets plain boring after a while. Some actors try to give it their all, but are often stuck playing out the same scenarios and not given anything new to do. Again, there were only three episodes, but even by then a show needs to give us something beyond just rehashing the same beats over and over.
On an unrelated note, I do kind of enjoy the whole concept of bringing contemporary artists on to play recognizable 60s acts, which this show was planning to make a regular thing. This isn’t exactly novel–shows like American Dreams made it a gimmick–but it’s always kind of fun. Unfortunately, the only one we really got was Colbie Caillat as Leslie Gore, sounding about as far from that singer as possible. This kind of rankled me, but then clearly this show isn’t too concerned with verisimilitude. I would’ve liked to see Raphael Saadiq play Sam Cooke, which apparently was supposed to happen in episode 4, though.
So why did The Playboy Club tank so quickly? I mean, it had a cool 60s aesthetic, lots of T&A, some mafia-related intrigue, and dudes in nice suits: seems like a no-brainer, right? Well, apparently the public just didn’t latch onto the series, and the network didn’t seem to have too high of hopes for it, either. Both this show and Pan Am attempt to catch that Mad Men magic, making it serviceable to a network TV audience. Many of the show’s creators expressed desire for the show to be picked up by a cable network, which may have allowed the writers to be a tad less inhibited. But then, a lot of the problems with the show have nothing to do with its inherent raciness and more to do with weak writing, something that really isn’t dependent on one network or another. There’s still the off-chance that a fan campaign could bring it back, but I’m not optimistic. If that petition comes around, let’s just say I won’t be signing it.
So, should it be back on the air? ehhhhh, nahhhh. Maybe if the show decided on a consistent tone and ironed out the kinks, it could be an entertaining-enough time waster, but as is, it doesn’t have what it takes to be a long-running series. Besides, who knows how much longer the whole nostalgia for the casual sexism and functioning alcoholism of the 60s bit is gonna last? Sorry, Hef, you’ll have to console yourself on a bed made of gorgeous naked women.
So this is the part where I’d apologize for taking so long between posts and promise to be more prompt, but honestly, who the hell knows when I’ll write next? Hopefully soon, but if not, don’t be surprised. I blew my chance to finish Kings on Hulu, so I’m not entirely sure what I’ll be covering next, but you’ll be the first to know!
Hello loyal readers. It’s been a while. How’s the wife? Really? You’re kidding! Well, I wish her a full recovery.
But in all seriousness, I’m sorry it’s been so long since I did one of these. It’s been a busy couple of months, and it’s been tough to find much time to sit and watch old TV shows of late. But hopefully such a long and unfortunate break between posts won’t happen again. Today, we’re going to go back in time, to a magical, far off world called the Clinton administration. It’s hard to believe that 1990 was twenty years ago, but there it is. The 90s will no doubt soon become the 80s, where a nostalgia boom will undoubtedly happen, more so than has already occurred. I grew up watching 90s TV shows, primarily of the animated variety, but any 90s show, cartoon or not, has an undeniable sensibility that makes it instantly recognizable. Often, it’s a winningly cheesy sensibility, but one that we have to forgive. I did not watch the show I’m covering today in the 90s. In fact, I hadn’t heard of it until my good pal Michael offered to let me borrow the DVDs for this blog (thanks for the loan Michael, by the way). Despite not hearing about it until late last year, while watching it I felt completely at home in its 90s-ness. The show I refer to is the forgotten (by most) sci-fi series Earth 2, which crashed and burned after one twenty-two episode season. Did it deserve such a fate? Is more like Lost in Space, or is it more like Lost, in space? More on that soon enough.
Given that this show is from 15 years ago, I think it’s a little pointless to say whether or not it should be back on the air, because it’s undoubtedly a product of its time. So, instead of my usual final statement, I will change it to “should it have stayed on the air?” Just so y’all don’t think I’m being inconsistent.
Now, onto the show itself. Earth 2 tells the story of a ragtag group of pioneers who are on a mission to set up a colony on a planet similar to Earth. The reason they need to do this is because the original Earth has become an almost uninhabitable place, and most of humanity has moved to orbiting space stations. However, this doesn’t seem to solve all their problems, as some kids born on the stations are afflicted with a disease called The Syndrome, which causes them to die by the age of eight. This is due to the fact that apparently spending every waking and sleeping hour cooped up in a space station really isn’t so good for developing bodies. Not content to sit idly by and watch her son, Ulysses (Joey Zimmerman), perish of this disease, rich lady Devon Adair (Debrah Farentino) leads and expedition to a planet known as G889, in the hopes of building a new colony where all the sick children can run and play and hopefully not be sick anymore. With her on this expedition is Yale (Sullivan Walker), a reformed criminal whose brain has been wiped and is now a tutor; John Danziger (Clancy Brown), a gruff but kind blue-collar worker and his daughter True (J. Madison Wright); Morgan Martin (John Gegenhuber), a snivelly government guy and his wife Bess (Rebecca Gayheart); Julia Heller (Jessica Steen), who was genetically programmed to be the group’s doctor, and Alonzo Solace (Antonio Sabato Jr.), the ship’s pilot, who is a lot older than he looks, due to all the time spent in cold sleep. On the way to the planet, the ship is sabotaged and crash-lands on the other side from where the colony was supposed to be set up. So this group of reluctant pilgrims must traverse a harsh landscape that looks suspiciously like New Mexico, to get to where they need to set up the colony. Along the way, they discover that the planet is basically one living organism, and that a group of creatures called the Terrians have a special connection with the planet’s resources. When they take Ulysses and cure him of his illness, they give him certain Terrian abilities, making him a link between their world and the humans. This makes a secret government group called the council, run by a man named Reilly (Terry O’Quinn in an excellent recurring role), interested in harvesting this link for future use in controlling the planet.
Here’s the opening credits that give you a nice feel of the series:
That’s the basic premise, without getting too detailed or spoiler-y on you. A reliably good, campy Tim Curry shows up early on as a mysterious stranger who claims to be a marooned astronaut, but is actually hiding some dark secrets. There’s also some creatures called Grendlers that play a part in some episodes, either causing trouble or actually helping the crew in some way. Every episode has the same basic premise: something is putting the crew in danger and they have to stop it. It gets a little repetitive, but for the most part it works. The overlying message has an environmental vibe, but it doesn’t beat you over the head with it too much. The idea is that in order to live on the planet, or our planet, for that matter, we have to coexist with our surroundings and not just barge in and take over. It’s hard not to see the Terrians as sort of a stand-in for Native Americans who were forced off their land as we settled the frontier, but none of the environmental stuff really distracts too much from the story and characters.
One of Earth 2‘s strengths is that it seems most concerned with developing its characters, and seeing how each one of them grows in this new, unpredictable world. Pretty much all the characters get their own storylines, and most of them are pretty interesting. Like any series, it’s the characters that keep us coming back week after week, and it’s nice to see that underneath all the weird sciencey mumbo-jumbo talk and the constant peril, the show is really invested in letting its characters grow and change in their new environment. Most of the acting is pretty solid, though I have to say sometime Sabato’s acting is a little questionable. I know he was on General Hospital before this, but still. I especially liked Brown and Farentino, who both very well play the sort of put-upon leader roles and complement each other while also being complete opposites. They’re often at odds but have a very clear sexual tension between them that I’m sure would’ve been more deeply explored if the show had more time. There’s one time where this tension really comes to a head, when Devon has to grab Danziger’s canteen with her mouth, given that they’re both tied up. She has to bend down basically to his crotch and grab it with her teeth, it what can only be described as a mildly disturbing pantomime of oral sex. I don’t think that’s my dirty mind making that up; I really think that’s what they were planning. I wish I could find a clip to show you.
I should tell you though, weird oral sex thing aside, not everything in Earth 2 works. It does fall victim to a lot of 90s cheesiness, even if it is endearing cheesiness. Also, some of the plotlines are just plain ridiculous, and some of the science involved just seems like complete bullshit. I know it’s in the future and all, but some of it sounds like total bologna, especially if, like me, you’re not one of those science loving folk. There’s one really odd one where the crew finds an ancient Terrian body frozen in ice, and somehow its spirit, which is evil for some reason, manages to possess Danziger, at which point Alonzo has to enter the dream plain (which, I realize now, I neglected to mention. Basically, Alonzo can communicate with the Terrians through his dreams, on what is known as the dream plain. There.) and fight the evil Terrian to save Danziger. It’s not a terrible episode, but it feels kind of out of place with the rest of them, especially since it does nothing to advance the story. Think of it like the diamond thieves episode of Lost, only a little less stupid and not featuring Billy Dee Williams.
A few highlights, of many solid episodes, would have to be some of the final ones of the season. I really liked one where 25 year-old Ulysses communicates with his mother via the dream scape, telling her she has to send his younger self into a cave with the secrets that could save the syndrome kids in the future. We also get a glimpse at what the colony will look like, and it really doesn’t look too much better than the stations. Sometimes these future episodes just seem like a filler when a show has no more new ideas, but I have to say it worked this time. It was a legitimately interesting look at the future, and what would happen with Devon and Ulysses. I also liked a two-parter where Yale starts to think his mind wash is going to malfunction and he’ll revert back to his criminal ways, but later he finds out the truth about what he did in the past, and it’s different than he thinks. I like how the show wasn’t afraid to let a story play out over a couple episodes, instead of wrapping it up neatly at the end every time, like some shows do.
But alas, the show was unable to flesh out its characters too much, as it was cancelled after the first season, despite an extensive campaign by fans to keep it on TV, due to dropping ratings. Evidently there was more at work than just your average ratings drop, however. According to one site, NBC fired the producers of the show and made a promo video showing the direction they wanted to take the series. When people finally saw this promo, including the cast and crew, they decided it was better off cancelled. Apparently the network wanted to dumb the show down and make it more appealing to mass audience. I get the sneaking feeling maybe sci-fi shows don’t really belong on major networks, especially the smart ones. Luckily, what was made has been preserved on DVD, though unfortunately it is in broadcast order, which puts two unaired episodes at the very end, even though they belong earlier in the season. Why they didn’t just put them in the right order, I have no idea.
So, should it have stayed on the air? I think so. It may not have worked all of the time, but it had an intriguing premise, interesting characters, a constantly changing world, some compelling drama and some decent for the time special effects. Sure, it appeals more to the sci-fi crowd than anybody else, but it’s still a reasonably compelling series. It would’ve also given its actors more work, as not many of them have really had very illustrious careers after this show. Clancy Brown went on to appear in numerous movies and shows, including memorable stints on Carnivale and in The Shawshank Redemption. Also, my brain literally almost exploded when I found out he voiced Mr. Crabs. All this time, and I never realized it was him! Crazy. He’s probably the most successful post-series; Farentino’s appeared in some stuff, as have Steen and Gayheart. Antonio Sabato Jr. attempted a movie career, and largely failed. Gegenhuber and Walker didn’t fare much better; his last notable film role was in the largely worthless 50 Cent vehicle Get Rich or Die Tryin’. What a shame. What’s also a shame, and a tragedy, is that J. Madison Wright, who played True Danziger, died of a heart attack at age 22. That’s insanely young to have a heart attack.
Overall, while not spectacular, I’d recommend giving it a watch. If for nothing else, than simply to bask in it’s wonderful 90sness.
Come back next time (though let’s be honest, who knows when that’ll be? Hopefully soon) when I’ll be watching the recently cancelled Aliens in America! I’ve heard good things.