The producers of NBC’s “The Playboy Club” would rather you not compare their drama – about the Bunnies, patrons and other hangers-on at the famous Chicago club in the early ’60s – to “Mad Men,” even though it’s set in the same era, has styled leading man Eddie Cibrian to look very much like Don Draper, has a pilot directed by frequent “Mad Men” contributor Alan Taylor, and has a cast that includes Naturi Naughton playing a “chocolate Bunny” much like the one she played last season on “Mad Men.”
Some of the “Playboy” producers’ reasons for avoiding the comparison have been stated, while some are just easy to assume. On the former, there’s the way the new show is much more overtly soapy and fast-paced than the AMC drama. The pilot features both a musical number and a murder within the first five minutes and features intrigue involving the Mafia and Chicago politics. On the latter, there’s the inescapable fact that “Mad Men” gets ratings that, while good for AMC, would get it canceled in two weeks by NBC, and the even more inescapable fact that Eddie Cibrian is not Jon Hamm – not even if you squint and turn the sound way down.
Cibrian plays popular attorney Nick Dalton, a character whose name I would know even if I hadn’t written it down while watching. How would I know this? Because virtually every scene that doesn’t feature him – and some that do – has other characters talking about him, always referring to him by his full name. This is a writer’s trick to help a new character make a big impression, and it’s especially useful if the actor who plays that part isn’t that impressive on his own, but the name trick alone can only do so much. And while Cibrian certainly looks great in those tight suits, skinny ties and Brylcreem’ed hair, he hasn’t suddenly discovered the charisma that was glaring in its absence when he was part of the cast of “Third Watch,” and “Invasion,” and “Tilt” and “Vanished” and “CSI: Miami” and… (When you’re that handsome, you get a lot of shots.) He was a liability in the original version of the “Playboy” pilot, and even more of one in the version that will air tonight at 10, since it considerably beefs up both his importance to the narrative and his screen time.
“The Playboy Club” is, on paper, about how Hugh Hefner (who appears in a few scenes shot from behind, like Marcellus Wallace, or George Steinbrenner on “Seinfeld”) gave all those lucky Bunnies a chance to reinvent themselves and feel independent and liberated at a time when other women who were dressed more warmly didn’t have such freedom. And the show has a large female cast, headlined by Amber Heard as nervous new Bunny Maureen and highlighted by Tony winner Laura Benanti as Bunny-turned-boss Carol Lynne. But all eyes somehow turn away from the Bunnies and to Nick Dalton whenever he enters a room (Carol Lynne utters the familiar-bordering-on-sleepy refrain about how all men want to be him and all women want to be with him), and the plot keeps moving away from pros and cons of the Bunny lifestyle and back to whether the local wiseguys will queer Nick’s run for State’s Attorney.
Though it’s not clear how much writer Chad Hodge could say about Playboy culture if he had all the time in the world. Playboy is a brand that still exists, and the company is involved with the series. So it’s hard to take seriously most of the show’s claims that, as fake Hefner puts it, “The world was changing, and we were changing it, one Bunny at a time,” or moments like the one where Naughton’s Brenda tells Maureen that, “Life is always gonna be rough out there. But we’re in here. We’re at the party, and the party just started.”
Taylor does a strong job of showcasing the show’s main set, a recreation of the original Club, and several of the musical numbers (sometimes the Bunnies get to sing, and other times the show casts actors to play ’60s musicians like Ike & Tina Turner) really pop. But the show’s attempts at social relevance ring hollow, and the main plot leans too heavily on the wooden Cibrian.
In addition to trying to distance themselves from the creative (if not commercial) shadow of “Mad Men,” the producers have insisted that this is a story of female empowerment. Maybe there’s a show that could more convincingly make that argument, and also be an entertaining snapshot of a bygone America (even if it’s one that Matt Weiner and company have explored in detail in recent years), but this version of “The Playboy Club” isn’t it.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org