Review: The Playboy Club 1×1 (US: NBC)

Saddled with a bad name, it's no Mad Men but still not bad

The Playboy Club with Amber Heard and Eddie Cibrian

In the US: Mondays, 10/9c, NBC

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before

Playboy. Say the word and there’s going to be an immediate reaction. Some people will be excited at the hint of some flesh, some people will think it anti-female and some people will instantly think ‘porn’ and try to ban whatever you’re talking about.

So it is with NBC’s The Playboy Club – formerly known as just Playboy – which had the Parents Television Council boycotting it before they’d even seen it, which had NBC’s Utah affiliate saying they weren’t going to show it because of its associations with pornography and which had various people saying it should be boycotted because it was demeaning to women.

The producers and stars protested that this was a historical drama/crime story/soap and that everyone was making something out of nothing before they’d even seen it. Okay, the nudity clause in the stars’ contracts didn’t help, but this was NBC so the chances of actual nudity, given the Janet Jackson ‘Superbowl nip slip’ is still being dragged through the courts, was zero, but that didn’t seem to stop anyone.

Anyway, now it’s on our screens so everyone can see what the fuss is about – or at least 5m people can, given the show’s lackluster ratings on Monday.

Set in Chicago, 1961, it stars Amber Heard – best known in the US as “that girl in the new Guess jeans ads” and in the UK as “Top Gear‘s best ever but slowest ‘star in a reasonably priced car'” (and on this ‘ere blog as one of our regular ‘random actors‘) – as Maureen, a new ‘bunny’ in Chicago’s Playboy Club. She gets herself into hot water when she’s attacked by a patron who turns out to be a mob boss. Naturally, she kills him with her stiletto.

Aided by Nick Dalton – played by Eddie Cibrian, best known in the UK as “that guy who took over from Adam Rodriguez for a season in CSI: Miami when he had a hissy fit” and in the US as “that scum who ditched his model wife and baby so that he could have an affair with the equally married Leann Rimes” – Maureen manages to cover up her crime.

For now.

With a scattergun approach that involves firing just about everything possible at the screen, ranging from social issues and soap opera love triangles to singing, dancing and a little bit of ultra-violence, the show has a little something for everyone. Given all those ingredients, it’s a little duller than you might hope, as well as a little stupider, but it at least shows some promise.

Here’s a trailer.

From Academy Award-winning Executive Producer Brian Grazer, “The Playboy Club” is a provocative new NBC drama about a time and place that challenged the existing social mores and transformed American culture forever. It’s the early 1960s, and at the center of Chicago lies the legendary and seductive Playboy Club, a living, breathing fantasy world filled with $1.50 cocktails, music, glitter and of course, beautiful Bunnies. The key to the club, which offers the ultimate in beauty, is the most sought-after status symbol of its time. But all that glitters isn’t gold, and in the back rooms and alleys behind the club, life happens – both good and bad.

Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian, “CSI: Miami,” “Third Watch”) is the ultimate playboy and one of the city’s top attorneys, rubbing elbows with everyone in the Windy City’s power structure. With mysterious and complicated ties to the mob, he comes to the aid of Maureen (Amber Heard, “Zombieland,” “Pineapple Express”), the stunning and innocent new Bunny at the club, who accidentally kills the patriarch of the Bianchi crime family. Dating Nick is Carol-Lynne (Laura Benanti, “Take the Lead,” “Eli Stone”), a bombshell of a beauty and an established star at the Playboy Club who’s ready to be more than a Bunny. As she seeks an opportunity to elevate her stature even higher at the club, she can’t help but notice that something is developing between Nick and Maureen. Adding to the charm of the club is Janie (Jenna Dewan Tatum, “American Virgin,” “Step Up”), the foxy and carefree life of the party who is dating Max (Wes Ramsey, “CSI: Miami,” “Dracula’s Guest”), a sweet and romantic bartender. Brenda (Naturi Naughton, “Lottery Ticket,” “Fame”), a stunning beauty with a dry wit, has big aspirations. Bunny Alice (Leah Renee, “True Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet”) manages to take care of everyone but herself, and while married, is hiding a huge secret from everyone. Pearl (Jenifer Lewis, “Strong Medicine,” “What’s Love Got To Do With It”) is the club’s seamstress who’s been there since day one and knows more about what it takes to survive than anyone. Running the club and answering only to the top is general manager Billy Morton (David Krumholtz, “Numb3rs,” “Superbad”), who also shares a close friendship with Nick. With all of these larger-than-life ambitions, there are even greater secrets. It’s a good thing Hef’s Playboy Mansion is open after hours for a little R&R – and burying your past.

In addition to Grazer, executive producers include Chad Hodge (“Runaway,” “Tru Calling”), Francie Calfo (“Scoundrels”), Jason Burns (“The House Bunny,” “The Girls Next Door”), Dick Rosenzweig (“The House Bunny,” “The Girls Next Door”) and Ian Biederman (“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”). Hodge also wrote the pilot, which was directed by Alan Taylor (“Mad Men,” “The Sopranos”). The series is produced by 20th Century Fox Television, Imagine Television and Alta Loma Entertainment.

Is it any good?
It’s a flawed show, certainly, even with some tinkering by the network with the pilot, but it’s got possibilities.

Comparisons with Mad Men are obvious, not least because Naturi Naughton played a black Playboy Club bunny in Mad Men and guess what she’s doing here. Eddie Cibrian is also clearly doing his level best to be Jon Hamm, but he’s the homeopathic Hamm, diluted from the original to the point that he’s no longer effective. He’s only got one real way of playing a scene – earnest – two if you include ‘topless’, and he’s a hell of a mumbler when he’s earnest.

There’s a similar, but not as meticulous attention to period detail and the social mores of the time as with Mad Men, too, that at least trumps The Hour‘s “we’re in the 50s but our heroes will think and act like it’s 2011” approach.

But this isn’t Mad Men – the writing’s not as good, for one thing, and neither is the acting, although “Mummy Bunny” Laura Benanti is a stand-out. It’s faster-paced than Mad Men and it’s a crime drama in a way that Mad Men totally isn’t, with half the plot focused on Nick Dalton and the mob, as well as on Bunny Maureen.

Heard is a little weak as Maureen for most of the show, going through various iterations of the same miserable lost girl expression. However, whenever we get hints that Maureen has a lot more fire in her belly and might not be quite the girl we thought she was, she really starts to shine.

Meanwhile, David Krumholtz is woefully miscast as the tough as nails club manager. Maybe I can’t shake him from my mind from 10 Things I Hate About You and Numb3rs, but when he tries to go for hard-boiled, it feels like someone playing dress-up in daddy’s suit.

But it does have some good qualities to it. It looks good. It’s a touch of a whitewash, with Playboy seemingly the instigator and supporter of all social change in the 60s; ‘Hef’ does do a narration, too, and makes a cameo, even doing a Charlie in Charlie’s Angels-style intercession at one point. But it also does highlight some of the problems the club had, as evidenced in Gloria Steinem’s famous undercover article (the internal doctor’s examination and blood test appear to have snuck under the radar, though, as did the ban on dancing with clients, although there are hints that these are things introduced later on in the clubs’ history). It has some good music, too.

It also hints at the racism, sexism and homophobia of the period, even having a lesbian bunny in a ‘lavender marriage’. And the bunnies, despite effectively becoming almost Power Rangers in some ways (Black Bunny, Lesbian Bunny, Bunny Mummy, New Bunny, etc), are given characters, stories and ambitions of their own. This is, after all, a show aimed largely at women. Again, judging by the ratings, most women didn’t realise that. The bunny outfits probably didn’t help. In fact, the show’s biggest problem is that it’s been saddled with the Playboy stigma. Had this been a show about any old club in the 60s, I doubt anyone would have had a problem with it.

So it’s no Mad Men and it’s no classic of television. But for a first episode, it ain’t too shabby and there’s potential there at least. One to stick with for a while.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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