Glamour, Money and Historical Accuracy in ‘The Playboy Club’

Upfront season is a time of cautious optimism; the pilots you’ve long been praying would make it through have been shot, picked up by networks, and the actor that you love is finally getting their big break (or second shot). But the worst feeling is when you’ve put too much stock into a show that just isn’t panning out the way you’d like.

At first, I had high hopes for NBC’s The Playboy Club, and on some level, I still do. Set in my favorite era, the ’60s, I thought I’d be a network version of Mad Men, except Chicago-style. A potential exploration into the drama behind the glamour, The Playboy Club cast Amber Heard as the new Bunny in town, Naturi Naughton, who wants to be the first black Playboy centerfold, and Laura Benanti as their Bunny Mother.

They’re a promising set of women; Naughton was impressive as Lil’ Kim in Notorious, Benanti has had a storied theater career, and Heard’s vulnerability in The Joneses was underrated. What is to come for their characters remains to be seen, but what has been done with historical accuracy is far more distracting.

Sure, the trailer looks beautiful. Costumes and sets have kept me watching shows longer than I should (I’ve been known to say that I’d watch Mad Men on silent). It’s almost detrimental to The Playboy Club that it comes off of the heels of the success of Mad Men. On the one hand, it probably wouldn’t even be a concept if Matthew Weiner’s hit show wasn’t doing so well; on the other, Mad Men has so painstakingly recreated the ’60s on all levels that anyone else who attempts the same will probably fail.

The biggest error thus far is revealed in the trailer, when one of the Bunnies says “My husband hates that I work here. But I just tell him the money’s too good. I make more money than my father.”

The reality of the club was far less glamorous, and much more complicated than it seemed. Though a job as a Bunny was advertised at paying $200 to $300 per day, in her famous essay “I was a Playboy Bunny”, Gloria Steinem revealed that such income was only coming in to Table Bunnies who worked the floor. This money largely came from tips, however, Bunnies were only allowed to keep any received in cash; if charged, the club could take up to 50 percent.

Additionally, there was a hierarchy: Hat-check Bunnies (the starting position) didn’t get to keep any of their tips, and were paid $12 for eight hours. Steinem’s Bunny Mother Sheralee explained to her that, “you won’t work hat check all the time, sweetie. When you start working as a table Bunny, you’ll see how it all averages out.”

How much does this detail matter? Perhaps not at all. But as much as inaccurate setting can detract from a television show, historical inaccuracies are far worse.

Some might call it nitpicking, but it’s the details that count. Mad Men has been raked across the coals for even the smallest of mistakes, such as using incorrect fonts, or having Don Draper swim in a bathing suit instead of nude. These details may be merely distracting for Mad Men, which usually excels on all fronts, but for The Playboy Club, this discrepancy in how much Bunnies were actually making plays into potential larger issues with the show.

In the trailer, it appears that after being sexually assaulted by a patron, Heard’s character Bunny Maureen accidentally kills the man attacking her. By killing the man, The Playboy Club may have killed the real issue. The sexual politics behind these women during the charged beginnings of Second Wave feminism are interesting enough; there’s no need to make murder the center of this story. The darkness behind the glamour of the Club could be revealed through a more well-rounded look at the pain of wearing such costumes, or the daily harassment Bunnies dealt with from customers. Save the murder for Law and Order.

Of course, this is all jumping the gun. There’s been no indication yet how throughly the writing staff has done their research; I’m sure they’ve read The Playboy Club Bunny Manual, and it’d be nice if they read Steinem’s book too, or talked to the number of ex-Bunnies who still identify with that label and consider it an important part of their lives.

Hugh Hefner is no doubt involved, though the necessity for his approval has often limited the amount of realism such Playboy-related projects can have (see: Brigitte Berman’s documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, which Time magazine called “airbrushed”). The company and all it has spawned, as well as the era, make for fascinating and fruitful material on which to build a television show. Is it too much to hope that they make sure to get the details right?