It's really hard to not talk about Mad Men when reviewing this show. The Playboy Club, along with ABC's upcoming Pan Am, are both set in the externally glamorous vintage '60s, using the time period as a back-drop for exploring cultural and economic shifts and oppression of gender, sexuality and race. What instantly makes itself clear with this pilot is that The Playboy Club is in no way Mad Men. While Mad Men takes its time exposing the hypocrisy of the period and the flawed, fascinating characters at its center, The Playboy Club has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face, with a script so annoying it's almost comedic.
What will probably cause The Playboy Club significant harm in the long run (if this show even lasts past December, which I can't see happening) is that it's absolutely "in brand". This is Hugh Hefner's show, with his grubby fingerprints all over it. You won't be seeing any explosive exposés on the sleazier aspects to the bunny profession any time soon, especially when the pilot goes to exhausting lengths to characterize Hef as a forward-thinking radical who sees past race and sexism and promoted a feminist cause in a time of great oppression. Even worse is the zombified narration Hef himself provides to book-end the pilot. While I'm sure Hef believed Playboy was a cause for good, the show would be better exploring the lesser opinions of the Club, which I'm sure were more extensive in the more conservative '60s. Even more so when you factor in the women who haven't yet got the 'voice' that still remains a struggle today. Instead the show paints him as some kind of rebel, visually a mysterious 'presence' along the lines of George Steinbrenner on Seinfeld. It's ridiculous.
The 'issues' raised throughout the pilot are mildly intriguing, but I don't trust the show to do any of them any justice. There's the fascinating Mattachine Society subplot, but I'm not sure contrived proclamations of "tonight we are homosexual!" will better the tragedy of the Sal Romano arc on Mad Men. Then there's Naturi Noughton's annoying 'chocolate bunny', whose dialogue consists of embarrassing attempts at race commentary ("You can't discriminate against these babies").
Of the cast, only Laura Benanti's aging 'mother bunny' and Leah Renee's cute lesbian bunny create genuine sparks, and while I like Amber Heard, she's been lumped with such a sad-sack character that it's hard to give a damn. You feel for a sexually-harassed secretary on Mad Men since you know that kind of work is the only way a woman can get her foot in the door at an esteemed advertising agency. But Maureen doesn't need to be a Playboy bunny, and her insecurity feels contrived. It's crazy irritating. Then there's skeezy Eddie Cibrian. I'm usually somebody who can differentiate between actor and character, but he's such a tool in real life that his portrayal here really bothered me. And his constant smirking needs to be terminated.
Gloria Steinem once exposed the Playboy Club for its low wages, terrible living conditions, abused staff and invasive interviewing procedures. Maybe that would have made an interesting series, instead of this lily-white glorification of the past. I was excited for this show, but outside of a couple of interesting character moments and some energetic Tina Turner impersonations, this was a huge disappointment. Color me underwhelmed. I'm out. C-
Guest stars Sean Maher (Max); Karen LeBlanc (Tina Turner); Troy Garity (John Bianchi)
Writers Chad Hodge, Becky Mode Director Alan Taylor