Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Pilot Review: The Playboy Club

The Playboy Club (Mondays at 10:00 on NBC)

After having some time to digest the pilot of NBC's controversial new series The Playboy Club, I still don't understand exactly what everyone is up in arms about. There was less skin shown in this episode than any given installment of Pretty Little Liars; there is much less overt sexuality than anything on MTV. What is there to be offended by? Is it simply because of the Playboy name and what that has come to represent? Because there are other things to be angry about in this pilot, but the least of those things is anything "risque" or whatever. If you're going to be angry about anything, be angry about the mediocre storytelling or the anti-feminist messages.

The Playboy Club opens with a performance at the Chicago Playboy Club from Carol-Lynne (Laura Benanti), the first-ever bunny. Her lover walks in, handsome lawyer Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian), but is quickly distracted by the new cigarette girl, small town blonde Maureen (Amber Heard). Maureen immediately finds herself in trouble with the mob and depending on the help of Nick to get her out of it. We meet a diverse cast of other bunnies as well: Brenda (Naturi Naughton), who is dead-set on becoming the first black centerfold; Janie (Jenna Dewan-Tatum), who is dating the bartender and constantly fending off his marriage proposals; and Alice (Leah Renee Cudmore), a married bunny with a deep secret.

The plot itself is nearly inconsequential, as the only important event in the entire episode occurs in the first few minutes. The remaining forty minutes are dedicated to introductions and basic set-up, nothing more. This is where the pilot fails most; events are put in motion, but there is such an extensive ensemble to introduce that we really don't learn anything about any of the characters. Maureen gets caught up in a mobster's murder before we know anything about her (I'm not even sure if we knew her name yet); Carol-Lynne and Nick end their relationship before we're even aware that they're in one; Billy Rosen (David Krumholtz), the club manager, fires Carol-Lynne without us ever knowing exactly what her job is. The development in this first hour is very surface level. Instead of bombarding the audience with these massive plot pieces so soon, it would've been nice to slow the pace down a bit and really nail down who these women are first.

Laura Benanti is an absolute blast as Carol-Lynne, the "bunny mother." She is giving a bitch performance the likes of which haven't been seen in primetime since Alexis Carrington. She upstages the rest of the cast gleefully. The only other bunny who is at all memorable is Lean Renne Cudmore's Alice. She plays a bunny with morals, seemingly, though her character gets the only real advancement of the entire episode in the pilot's final minutes. She is not only funny, she is the only interesting ensemble bunny. Eddie Cibrian does little more than smirk, and David Krumholtz gets some great oneliners (though they're delivered in a ridiculous Chicago accent).

The Playboy Club is not going to survive on its cast, though. Even though this introductory episode was oddly paced and structured, it has a fun feel to it. It's stylish, but not in a Mad Men-copycat way. It has a bright vibe to it, not a drab 1960s washout that has become so common of series and films set in the decade. It's pulpy and slightly ridiculous, but that was obviously the intention. I mean, you don't set a murder mystery in a club where women wear leotards and rabbit ears, serving drinks for lucrative tip money without it coming across as pulp. But that's also what will ultimately make it so much fun. You really can't take it as seriously as some already have, despite its concern for wanting to tackle serious issues (the place of the woman in society, homophobia, racism, etc.). If you let go and just revel in the inherent campiness and fun on display, you might just enjoy yourself.

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