That’s Hugh Hefner himself delivering the introduction to the pilot of The Playboy Club (NBC, Mondays at 10 p.m. ET). The series, set in 1963, concerns the patrons and employees of Hefner’s Chicago nightclub, the first outlet in what would become a worldwide chain. In the voice-over, chipper as ever, the ancient pornographer prepares us to visit an Arcadia beyond reckoning: “I built a place in the toddlin’ town where everything was perfect, where life was magic, where the rules were broken and fantasies became realities …”
Well, anything’s possible, and perhaps this statement once was true, for a month or a moment, but there’s no way around the fact that the Playboy Club’s most notable contribution to American society was in offering the businessmen of Omaha and Buffalo a place to entertain clients while ogling women dressed in satin corsets and floppy ears. The new series serves many constituencies. For people who admire Mad Men on the most superficial level, it is an opportunity to marvel at Brylcreemed hair and narrow lapels. For professional fulminators against indecency, it is a cheap and easy target. For 12-year-old boys hopeful of a glimpse of something racy, it is a grave disappointment. For Gloria Steinem fans, it is an excuse to revisit the classic article “I Was a Playboy Bunny.” For viewers looking for a solid hourlong drama, it is one more thing not to watch. But for Hefner himself, it represents another shot at recasting himself as a great hero of liberation.
The series is dismal. I mean that literally: many shadows, much murk, strenuous faux-noiradumbration. From the mannered gloom hops Bunny Maureen, a new girl in town, a creamy blonde incarnated by actress Amber Heard. Maureen is naive. Maureen is energetic. Maureen is energetically naive. In a very early scene, when Maureen is supposed to be selling cigarettes, she is instead watching a senior Bunny singing onstage, admiring her in a trance of respectful envy. A customer asks Maureen to dance, and she assents. The customer gets a little handsy, and she slips away. The customer follows her into a backroom and starts getting feloniously handsy, and she struggles, fatally piercing his jugular with her stiletto heel and thus establishing a comfortably low bar for realism before the opening credits have rolled.
She has only one ally, but, happily, the writers have endowed him with a name like burnished steel—Nick Dalton. (The actor in the role, Eddie Cibrian, has been encouraged to wryly glare and dryly seethe very much in the manner of Don Draper, and he even deploys the same timbre of voice. Apparently, all mid-century manly men were cut from the same gray flannel cloth.) Nick, the club’s best customer, happened upon the assault and tried to rescue Maureen. Now it is his duty to inform her that the corpse they’re about to toss in Lake Michigan is that of a Mafia boss. He should know: Before devoting himself to flashy social-justice cases and setting his sights on the State Attorney’s office, Nick was a mob lawyer, as later conversations with lugubrious baddies reveal.
This is the core of the episode. Nick glowers at mobsters and, having fallen for Maureen, begins to reprioritize his womanizing. Maureen, for her part, flirts her way out of confrontations with mob henchmen and tries to concentrate on becoming a better Bunny, a process not without its similarities to geisha training. When she frets silently about retribution or pouts philosophically about the great mysteries, other Bunnies toss tampons at her.
Meanwhile, the ‘60s are beginning to happen, and The Playboy Club is here to tell you that wouldn’t have been the case without this warren of fluffy-tailed service-industry employees and their enlightened master. The “chocolate Bunny”—named Brenda and played by Naturi Naughton, who is quasi-reprising a Mad Men role—is very excited about laying eyes on Sammy Davis Jr., bouncily breathing, “Hef don’t care what color people are, as long as they’re interesting.” As testimonies of commitment to equal opportunity go, this is more persuasive than the later moment when Brenda adjusts her bosom and says, “You can’t discriminate against these babies.”
“The world was changing,” Hefner narrates near the end of the episode. “We were the ones changing it, one Bunny at a time.” He says this just after it is revealed that the Bunny at coat check is a closeted lesbian hoarding her tips to support the Mattachine Society, the pioneering gay-rights group. On the one hand, the moment overreaches in crediting a girlie-mag magnate as a progressive force. On the other, it does offer a rare moment of humor, however unintentional.
Shortly, Maureen, wearing a powder-pink nightie, breezes down to a private party at the old Playboy Mansion and stares at Tina Turner and the Ikettes onstage. Tina sings, “Make me over, I wanna be made over,” and Maureen submits to a reverie. She imagines herself at center stage—not performing or anything, just looking great in a red dress under white light and breathing orgasmically. And here comes Hef again: “The Bunnies were some of the only women in the world who could be anyone they wanted to be.” That’s unquestionably true, assuming that they wanted to be waitresses in uncomfortable shoes, and the tips were good, so it’s tough to scoff. But if you wanted to scoff anyhow, then you might begin with a line Clive James delivered on the occasion of reviewing a documentary titled The World of Hugh M. Hefner: “There was no gainsaying the fact that to make it as a Bunny, a girl needs more than just looks. She needs idiocy, too.”