September 20th, 2011
11:01 AM ET
[Editor's Note: The post below contains spoilers to the September 19 premiere of "The Playboy Club."]
As television networks continue to go retro in primetime this fall, NBC's hopped on the bandwagon with new drama "The Playboy Club."
Set in Chicago in 1963, the show tries to give a weekly peek through the keyhole of Hugh Hefner's first Playboy Club. It comes off as an elite den where women dressed up in tiny, tight costumes, were paid to look perfect and brought booze to men who thought they ruled the world, simply because they carried a club key. The show does capture that fantasy whether you find it sexy or sleazy.
We begin with a voice-over from Hefner himself (and if this threw you off, don't worry - he's not narrating subsequent episodes): "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 for everyone who walked through the doors," he says. Enter Eddie Cibrian and his devilish grin.
Good casting there, I'd say perfect in fact. Cibrian is Nick Dalton: a key holder, a "Club" regular, a lawyer and the boyfriend of Bunny Carol-Lynne.
Tony Award winner Laura Benanti portrays Carol-Lynne, who's confident but also can be cutting. She's been working at the club since the beginning and enjoys the spotlight, as we see her on stage performing in the pilot. Standing in the shadows is cigarette Bunny Maureen (Amber Heard). As the new bunny on the block from out of town, she watches Carol-Lynne much like Roxie Hart watched Velma Kelly onstage in "Chicago," admiring her beauty, envying her performance, imagining herself on that stage.
In the haze of her idol worship, she's joined by Bunny Alice (Leah Renee) and Bunny Brenda (Naturi Naughton, who once again slips into a bunny suit, as she did last season on "Mad Men"). Suddenly a patron approaches Maureen for a dance, but she pushes him away when his hands begin to wander.
Although Nick is dating Carol-Lynne he notices Maureen immediately, and asks her for a pack of cigarettes. While she's retrieving them from a supply closet, the man she pushed away on the dance floor shows up. Clearly unhappy with Maureen for refusing his advances, the creep attempts to rape her, but Nick tries to come to her rescue. A scuffle ensues, but somehow it's Maureen who rescues herself by puncturing her attacker's jugular vein with her ice blue, satin, stiletto heel and kills him. Wait a mintute - WHAT?!
I'll be honest: I definitely didn't expect to see blood on the bunny's hands (and cottontail) this early on. And I really didn't expect a high heeled shoe plunged into a guy's neck five minutes into this show. Really "Playboy Club"? Really?
Nick explains to Maureen that the guy she killed is Bruno Bianchi, head of the Bianchi crime family in Chicago. Maureen wants to call the police, but Nick tells her they'll be killed by the mob if she does. I'm not totally on board with this mob cliche, but let's go with it.
We find out later that Nick has ties to the Bianchis and that Bruno was like a father figure to him. What happens next is where the "Playboy Club" jumps the martini glass early on for me.
The two of them put the dead mob boss in a rug and sneak his corpse out of the club and into the trunk of the club manager's car. (Sure.) They dump the body in the river after weighing it down with chains.
Then, Nick brings Maureen to his posh penthouse where she can shower and have a drink. He offers her one of his shirts to wear, because he of course needs to wash the blood off Maureen's bunny costume and, get this, BOTH shoes! Nice playboy, that Nick.
The street smart lawyer tells naive Maureen to get out of town. She tells him that she grew up in orphanages and isn't leaving, she's worked too hard to get where she is. So of course the two are now bonded by Maureen's mob-boss-shoe-murder.
Cibrian and Heard definitely have chemistry. These two are worth watching, no matter how far fetched the aforementioned shoe-murder cover-up sounds. They even share a kiss in one scene because Nick has now become Maureen's alibi, but you get the feeling that Cibrian just really wanted to plant one on Amber Heard.
The two get caught by the cool and calculating Carol-Lynne at Nick's , and when neither of them offer an explanation she gets her things and leaves. But Carol-Lynne is no dumb bunny. After Billy fires her from the club for going through his files, she gets Hugh Hefner to make her Bunny Mother so she can return to the club as a superior. Thinking that Nick and Maureen have slept together, Carol-Lynne verbally cuts Nick down when he tries to win her back with jewelry.
Although "Playboy Club" revolves around the triangle of Nick, Maureen and Carol-Lynne - or, at least, the pilot did - the other Bunnies have their own secrets and subplots.
Bunny Alice is the Pollyanna of the club, complete with a fairly annoying voice. She's always talking about her husband, but the other bunnies have never met him. Suspicious? Turns out Alice is married to a gay man and she's a lesbian - she's working to earn money to fund a chapter of gay rights organization Mattachine Society.
Bunny Janie (Jenna Dewan) is involved with the club bartender Max, who is insanely jealous. He spends his hours behind the bar watching the club members objectify his girlfriend. In the first episode Max proposes to Janie but she declines and cannot tell him why. But really, are Janie and Max even interesting enough to care about where their story is going?
This all leaves us with Bunny Brenda, who wants to become the first African American Playboy centerfold, and when she makes her aspirations known all of the other bunnies seem stunned.
So by the end of the first episode we learn that just about everyone has secrets; there's been a murder and a cover-up, plus hidden sexual identity and mob ties. But were too many sub plots revealed in the first episode? I mean, the Bunny secrets just kept multiplying. Frankly, there may have been too much drama at this "Playboy Club." Isn't it supposed to be just a swinging time?
The show closes at a party at the Playboy Mansion, and we hear Hefner's voice once again: 'So come on in, you can be anyone you want to be. But like it says on the door, if you don't swing don't ring."
I think I'll stay for another round, to see which way this show swings. Will you?
About this blog
Our daily cheat-sheet for breaking celebrity news, Hollywood buzz and your pop-culture obsessions.