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‘The Playboy Club’ playful but pedestrian

By yael-katzwer

Section: Arts

September 23, 2011

There are a lot of new shows this fall and most of them seem perfunctorily mediocre. So I wasn’t expecting gold when I stumbled across NBC’s new series “The Playboy Club.” And I didn’t get gold, so no dashed hopes.

What I did get was a fun, entertaining hour. It is not the best show I have ever seen, but it was also not the worst—close to the worst, but still just shy of that prize.

“Playboy” takes place in the 1960s at Hugh Hefner’s original Playboy Club in Chicago, where high-rollers threw money at beautiful girls in skintight unitards and floppy ears, a.k.a. bunnies. The show centers on Bunny Maureen (Amber Heard), the new girl at the club, who accidentally murders a mob boss who is trying to rape her—all in the first 10 minutes. From there, a very handsome lawyer, Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian), helps her dispose of the body and provides her an alibi.

The show does not have a very powerful storyline, but what it does have is fairly skilled actors, who fit their roles to a T—and they aren’t hard on the eyes either. Heard aptly portrays a young girl who is a nervous wreck—probably due to the murder—yet remains at the club due to her hopes and aspirations for stardom. While Heard could have played this role in the stereotypical naive, new-girl fashion, she instead plays a moderately intelligent young woman who is simply in over her head.

Cibrian’s Nick Dalton is, in a word, charming, which is really all his character needs, at least this far into the show.

Some of the best actors on the show, however, are in bit roles. David Krumholtz of “Numb3rs” fame, who plays the club manager, delivers each line with an irritated weariness that displays Krumholtz’s acting talent and the character’s eternally exasperated personality. Criticizing Dalton for desiring an intellectual woman, Krumholtz quips, “You’re the only man I know who puts his hand up a girl’s skirt looking for a dictionary.” This line from anyone else probably would not have had the same panache.

Similarly, Leah Renee Cudmore of absolutely no fame is endearing as Bunny Alice. Often when actors try to portray someone sickeningly saccharine and trusting, they come off as sickening. Cudmore gives the doltish Alice a level of heart and sweetness that makes her truly delightful and a bona fide scene-stealer.

While the acting is not a problem for this show, the script is. Attempting to become the new “Mad Men,” the writers fell flat. While the dialogue is entertaining and elicits a few appreciative chuckles here and there, it has nowhere near the amount of witticisms that the “Mad Men” dialogue has. The truly sad thing is that they really tried.

One thing that makes “Mad Men” so spectacular is the witty wordplay framing the antics of the 1960s. “The Playboy Club” did not set itself up for this. “Playboy” makes similar comments about the ’60s with similar waggishness but it feels out of place due to the noticeably un-’60s-like nature of the show.

Despite repeatedly saying that the show takes place in the ’60s and the occasional references to racial tensions, nothing about the show feels groovy. The costumes could be from the ’60s but if you saw someone walking down the street wearing one, you wouldn’t give them a second look. (Well, maybe the bunny costumes. But that would be more because half-dressed women with pom-poms on their buttocks are walking down the street. That usually gets a few looks.) The dialogue does not indulge in any ’60s slang and the general vibe is 2011.

One of the few 1960s motifs is that Bunny Maureen is the Cigarette Bunny at the club, meaning she walks around with a tray of cigarettes, selling them to the customers. While this certainly dates the show, the fact that we almost never see anyone smoking on-screen counteracts that.

Now I don’t want you to get the idea that “The Playboy Club” is horrible, because it isn’t. It simply has some kinks—such as setting and dialogue—to work out. With time, the show could get better. First episodes are notoriously rocky as writers struggle to introduce viewers to brand new characters, introduce a gripping story line to last for the entire season and still flow along at a steady clip.

“The Playboy Club” was an enjoyable diversion. If you are looking for something highbrow and historically accurate, go watch the History Channel. It was also not smutty or gratuitous in the sex department. If you want that, go watch HBO. This is the show to watch if you are looking for your next guilty pleasure.

I know that I will be watching “Playboy” next week to find out what happens next because, even though it isn’t spectacular, do we need spectacular all the time? This is the kind of show that is best watched at 2 in the morning when all you want is an easy-to-follow plot and pretty people to gaze at.

Of course, you can watch it earlier; it airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on NBC. But act quickly, as it will probably be canceled midway through its first season.

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