The Playboy Club already appears destined to be a punchline made by the pop-culture geeks of the future. “This makes The Playboy Club look like The Sopranos,” some wiseass will almost certainly write in the not-too-distant future. In other words, after The Playboy Club is inevitably yanked off the air in a few weeks, the only time we’ll think of it in the future is to wonder how such a rotten show wound up on prime time. But, as thoroughly awful as The Playboy Club is, it has at least provoked one vital conversation: when is a show bad-bad, and when is a show good-bad? I’d argue that “A Matter Of Simple Duplicity” is the first episode of The Playboy Club that has truly qualified as “so bad, it’s good.”
Let’s start with what’s genuinely bad. At the top of the list is (ugh) Eddie Cibrian. In the opening scene of the episode, Nick and Carol-Lynne lie sexily amid the rumpled sheets in their mid-century modern bed. It was such a desperate, unapologetic instance of Mad Men plagiarism that I actually felt myself getting mad. Mad Men detractors like to argue that the series is all about style over substance; the next time I hear this, I’m going to force them to watch The Playboy Club. Point being, there’s a lot more to Mad Men than its hunky lead and awesome furniture, as The Playboy Club reminds us every week.
As I watch Eddie Cibrian act, the word that repeatedly comes to mind is “vacuous.” It’s difficult to isolate just what it is about Cibrian that is so dreadful; it’s not like he speaks in some flat monotone or always bites his lip in at the end of a scene (cough cough). But you get the overall impression that Cibrian is more worried about nailing his Don Draper impression than actually understanding the words that come out of his mouth. There’s no intelligence, psychological depth, or charm to his performance, which is why it’s laughable to think that Nick is running for office. It’s not that’s he’s untrustworthy, necessarily, but he’s neither clever nor charismatic, and when he says things like, “murder is a very specific term, it’s a legal term,” you get the sense he’s reminding himself as much as anyone. It’s like the guy from the Schick Mach 3 commercial just announced he’s running for the Republican nomination. (Though he might actually stand a pretty good chance.)
Also, can we talk about what, exactly, Nick is doing at the Playboy Club 24 hours a day? I know it’s still the early ’60s, a.k.a. the Era When Casual Sexism and Entitled White Males Ruled the Land. But doesn’t he, you know, have an office to go to? He is like the Cliff Clavin of the Playboy Club, only we’re supposed to believe that he’s running for state’s attorney? I wouldn’t count on this guy to bring me another basket of breadsticks at the Olive Garden.
Also filed under “bad-bad” is the tediously stupid plotline involving Nick’s fake relationship with a rich heiress named
Rachel Menken Frances Dunhill—who, of course, turns out to be a lesbian (speaking of lesbians: doesn’t the lesbian bunny sound like a pull-string doll?) At the suggestion of his new adviser, Sean (a.k.a. lesbian bunny’s beard) Nick decides, after about four seconds’ contemplation, the best thing for his campaign would be a fake relationship with “nice girl” Frances. They go out to fake dinner and share a fake kiss, and all the while Carol-Lynne is fuming. What a bitch, right? She decides to fight back with a fake relationship of her own, with the real state’s attorney.
The whole thing was written like an episode of Saved By The Bell: Zack is running for class president and decides to date a nice homely girl instead of Kelly, and she fights back by going out with the senior class president at Valley. In any case, it’s sort of heartbreaking to watch Laura Benanti give this appalling material more effort than it deserves. And it’s laughable to me that Carol-Lynne, who’s the closest thing this show has to a three-dimensional character (she’s got about 1.8 dimensions), would be hung-up on a himbo like Nick Dalton. It’s like the producers of this show decided, “Well, Don Draper cheats a lot, but this is network TV, so Nick has to be likable, so let’s have him kinda-sorta go out with other women all the time, but not really.” Sorry if I’m laying on the Mad Men comparisons this week, but I can’t help myself. I feel like someone who’s been crawling through the desert for a year and someone just handed me an icy cold glass of rubbing alcohol.
Okay, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let’s talk about the good-bad, starting with the “Loco-Motion”-mad bunnies. One thing you have to give The Playboy Club credit for: When it comes to doling out cliches, this show is utterly fearless. What’s that you say? Women dancing around to vintage R&B hits, singing into their hairbrushes was trite long before Stepmom? Well damned if we aren’t going to do it better than anyone has in the past—the bunnies dance in a train! And they’ll only be wearing bras! Susan Sarandon can suck it!
Also squarely in good-bad territory is John Bianchi, the dopey mafia scion played by Troy Garity, who’s constantly sidling up to Maureen, saying something threatening, then leaving her there to bite her lip and look scay-ed. Their scenes together have gotten so repetitive that I’m half-convinced the producers, in a bid to save money, are just playing the same loop on repeat. Maureen hatches some plot to finally get him off her back, but as far as I can tell her strategy involves 1) luring him into the back room and 2) biting her lip. Lucky Troy Garity has the distinction of delivering this episode’s most uproariously bad line of dialogue—“beautiful women are the most dangerous thing in the world”—for which some TV writer was paid more than most of us make in a month.
But my favorite good-bad part of this episode was the ludicrous Doris plotline, and I’m wondering how long before someone decides to make a series called Undercover Bunny—because I would watch that shit in a heartbeat. Doris weasels her way into a job at the club, and it becomes obvious right away that she is not to be trusted. But is she with the mob? No! Even worse… she’s a reporter! Now here’s where The Playboy Club might have actually engaged with, you know, history a little bit. Gloria Steinem famously went undercover as a Playboy bunny. Why not have a little self-referential fun and write an episode about a proto-feminist who writes an exposé about the club? Oh, right, because then show would actually have to stop pretending that the original Playboy Club was a bastion of social progress.
Instead, this undercover reporter is a hack with an agenda. She writes a two-part (!) story about the goings-on at the club, based on her extensive reporting during what appeared to be a single 8-hour shift. But you know how us women are—we tell each other everything!!! If I had a dime for every time I told a perfect stranger about that old man I ran over while ripping off a convenience store, I’d be able to buy myself a few stiff martinis (at 1960 prices).
No episode of The Playboy Club would be complete without a little propaganda, and in “A Matter Of Simple Duplicity” it arrived in the form of a monologue from Carol-Lynne, who told off that icky newspaper girl for saying mean things about the Playboy Club, where nothing bad ever happens except, you know, the odd murder or two. Oh and you know, there’s a bunch of mobsters who hang around. And the constant objectification and humiliation of grown women. But, you know, other than that. “These girls come from all walks of life. And they’re just trying to go somewhere better. And this place isn’t perfect, but it’s a long way from what you described in that article. We give those girls a chance. I don’t understand why you would want to destroy that,” Carol-Lynne said, wiping a single tear from her perfect cheek.