It’s the early 1960s and Maureen (Amber Heard) has left Ft. Wayne, Indiana for the big city of Chicago. She dreams of being a singer, but for now, she’s the newest bunny at The Playboy Club, garnering lots of attention selling cigarettes, smiling sweetly at customers, and occasionally dancing with them. When one partner (Randy Steinmeyer) gets a little too handsy on the dance floor, she walks away. Not long afterwards, he later tracks her down in a store room. Fighting off her would-be rapist, Maureen kills him with her stiletto. What she doesn’t realize is that she’s just killed the boss of the Bianchi crime family.
Tough first day.
Lucky for Maureen, she has also captured the attention and good will of Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian). In addition to being a well-known civil rights attorney, he proves to be especially adept at body disposal, crime scene clean up, and providing bulletproof alibis. All this makes him far more interesting than Maureen or any of the other girls in NBC’s The Playboy Club. That’s a problem, because regardless of your thinking about a show festooned with bustiers and bunny tails, the show is less about the club—as a business or a phenomenon—than it is this particular playboy.
According to uber-bunny Carol Lynne (Laura Benanti), Nick wants women to want him and men to want to be him. It’s not an especially incisive or original critique, and in that, it’s typical of the show. Jumping on the Mad Men retro bandwagon, it layers nostalgia, sexual tension, and social commentary, as well as a big dose of mob crime drama. But even as the show raises worthy political and cultural issues, their presentation is too often too simple.
In one subplot, a group of closeted gays and lesbians get together in secret, hoping to create a space where it is “okay to be homosexual.” Lesbian bunny Alice (Leah Renee) and her gay husband Sean (Sean Maher) serve as hosts for early Mattachine Society meetings, the irony being that even in the supposedly sexually “liberal” world of The Playboy Club, they must hide their identities.
The show takes up anther (still relevant) historical cause in Nick’s work representing black victims of housing discrimination. But this storyline only serves to make him look righteous and progressive, without detailing the clients’ situations. We see a newspaper picture of Nick alongside a client or again, he appears in the courthouse with his client by his side, smiling. When the show does make an overt comment about the racism in the 1960s, it isn’t a good one: the one black bunny, Brenda (Naturi Naughton), gushes, “Hef doesn’t care what color people are: I’m going to be the first chocolate centerfold.” The show sets up a complex set up tradeoffs here, where Brenda’s aspirations only underline the repressions she endures as a woman and a black individual, as a fetish object for white men with means. But the premiere episode of The Playboy Club doesn’t do much more than introduce the problem.
In part this problem is a function of the show’s positioning of its audience as if they are Playboy Club patrons. The camera pans over the women’s bodies repeatedly in close up. While leering customers make out-of-line comments, the girls have to absorb them as flirtations, as if being asked if you are one of the $1.50 items on the menu is merely a clever pick up line. In the voiceover narration for The Playboy Club, Hugh Hefner boasts, “Bunnies were some of the only women in the world who could be whoever they wanted to be.”
The show works hard to suggest that the bunnies were feminist forerunners, working the system to their advantage, asserting control over the very men objectifying them by turning themselves into, as Carol Lynne says, the “living, breathing fantasy that is the Playboy bunny.” However, the notion that making this choice was somehow liberating defies logic when we also see Carol Lynne and the club manager Billy (David Krumholtz) managing every detail of the bunnies’ appearance and behavior.
The Playboy Club has already come under fire—from anti-porn groups and, for very different reasons, from Gloria Steinem, who famously worked at New York City Playboy Club in 1963 to write a story for Show magazine. She has called for a boycott of the show, arguing that it’s “just not telling the truth about the era.”
These concerns have been countered by creator Chad Hodge (who says, “The bunnies were able to do a lot more than other women in their time”) and cast members Heard (“There are many women who went on to do things, have careers, become entrepreneurs”) and Naughton (“It’s empowering, because these girls were smart, they’re going to school, they’re buying homes, property—things that show what women couldn’t do at the time, using resources and relying on themselves”). While options during the era were surely limited, the show’s broad strokes don’t do justice to the choices women were making, or their self-awareness while making them.