Remember back when we all thought The Playboy Club was going to be a terrible rip-off of Mad Men? Woo, boy, were we ever wrong. Despite the myriad ways in which it rips off that series, The Playboy Club feels more like Models Inc: a show about beautiful people that’s almost comically superficial.
This week, we learned more about each of the babes at the club, which, sadly, does not actually mean this episode offered much in the way of character development. Alice, the sweet lesbian, has to play Happy Housemaker for her in-laws and, in a ludicrously contrived twist, is dragged by her father-in-law for a night out at the club. Janie (the “sexy” one) is aghast to discover that she’ll be on the cover of Playboy because of her crazy estranged hubbie. “He has no idea where I am, but he has a subscription to Playboy,” she says. It’s meant to sound ominous but is unintentionally hilarious. Of course, our protagonist Maureen had her hands full this week, fending off inquiries from Bruno Bianchi’s son and trying to keep Carol-Lynne off her back while landing the cover of Playboy. Looks aside, Heard is sort of a weird choice for Maureen: There’s something slightly sullen about her demeanor. She perpetually looks as if she’s running five minutes late to her 8:30 a.m. Western Civ lecture and hasn’t done the reading.
Then there’s poor old
Joan Holloway Carol-Lynne, who was hands-down the best thing about the pilot but who’s already calcifying into a cliché of the bitchy diva who’s past her prime. I still think Laura Benanti has the chops to make an interesting character out of Carol-Lynne, if only the writers would give her a scrap or two of humanity to work with. I hesitate to compare anyone to Joan Holloway, because that's just unfair, but what makes that character work so well is the profound vulnerability that lies beneath her hyper-competent exterior. Carol-Lynne’s competent, but uncomplicated, and her single-minded obsession with Maureen and Nick is growing old fast. (I feel like there’s a LeAnn Rimes joke to be made at this point, but I’ll refrain). The Playboy Club is populated by a bunch of attractive cardboard cutouts, not real people. Unless it can whip up some compelling, intriguingly flawed characters, this show will sink fast.
The other option, as I suggested last week, would be to lay on the cheese. There are moments when The Playboy Club feels like a hokey, old-fashioned musical—minus the music. The characters are broad archetypes with little emotional depth, all of whom have a tendency to break off into rambling monologues about their life's dreams at the drop of a hat. The worst offender in this department is Brenda, whose sole purpose on the show (so far, at least) is reminding everyone how hard it is to be black and to make bad puns involving the word “bunny.” I appreciate that the writers are trying, however ineptly, to dramatize the social change of the early ‘60s, but what would really be great is if Brenda seemed at all like a real human being. Right now, she’s more like Civil Rights Barbie.
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Anyway, her would-be musical moment is when she tells Maureen she wants to win the Bunny contest so she can buy some real estate—“and not just some dumpy plot on the South Side.” The dialogue is so forced, and the characterization so shallow, that the only thing that might redeem it is if Brenda and Maureen spontaneously burst into song. How about a sassy up-tempo number about her dream of moving to Lake Forest? A cheesy musical would be better than The Playboy Club as it is at the moment, which feels like something rescued from the bottom of the recycling bin outside Aaron Spelling's office in 1987.
Last week, I complained about the laughable idea, put forward multiple times in the pilot, that Playboy was somehow responsible from all the social progress of the 1960s, from civil rights to gay liberation to the feminist movement. In “The Scarlet Bunny,” The Playboy Club doubles down on this, ahem, unorthodox interpretation of the era. In another sequence that felt ripped from a Broadway musical, each of the finalists in the Bunny cover contest has to stand before Hef himself (apparently it’s sacrilegious to portray Hef, who is only seen in silhouette; he’s like the prophet Mohammad of The Playboy Club).
In the glare of the spotlight, each of the bunnies speaks glowingly about how liberating it is to dress up like a baby rodent and serve drinks to slavering middle-aged men. “In my bunny suit, I’m in total control,” says Brenda. “When I’m here, I feel beautiful,” says another one. But the piece de resistance is Amber Heard’s elliptical monologue with dramatic pauses worthy of a high school drama troupe: “My homelife…wasn’t the best…." Again, here’s where Maureen ought to break into song (obviously, a ballad). Instead, Amber Heard just stands there, biting her lip for emphasis.
It's difficult to pinpoint a real low point in this episode, but if forced to choose, I’d say it was the scene where Maureen poses for Alice. Even though she works at The Playboy Club and spends most of her waking hours surrounded by semi-naked women, Alice for some reason goes all a-quiver at the sight of Maureen in her “scarlet bunny” outfit. It was as if no one involved in the show knew exactly what effect they were going for—erotic? funny? –and they wound up with neither.
I guess now is the time that I should talk about Nick. (Cue long, exasperated sigh.) I’m going to say something about Eddie Cibrian that sounds like a compliment but isn’t one: He does a pretty competent Jon Hamm impersonation. Close your eyes and Cibrian actually sounds uncannily like the Mad Men star. But open them, and you’ll be reminded of how much more there is to acting than one’s voice. Cibrian seems to think that talking out of the side of his mouth and squinting a lot will make him seem interesting; alas, this is not the case. Making matters worse is a tired storyline about Nick’s bid to become state’s attorney (watch out, Peter Florrick!). After working as a fixer for the Mob—to pay his way through law school, natch—Nick is trying to stick to the straight and narrow, but in Chicago’s machine politics, that’s not an easy task. I’d say that Nick seems too sleazy and vacuous for a career, even in politics, but that would presume that “Nick” was in fact a coherent character at this point, rather than just a guy with dimples and a nice suit.