Canned TV Show #18: The Playboy Club
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!