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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2011-2012 season, now in its sixth year! Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season (or one that didn't make the cut) and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot. Keep in mind that a lot can change from what's being screened right now - recasting, reshooting, etc. - but we still want to give you a heads up on what you should (and shouldn't) keep on your radar in the coming months. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!
[IMPORTANT NOTE: The following is based on the original sales presentation which was screened to us privately or supplied by a third party NOT an informational, not-for-review screener provided by the network in question.]
THE PLAYBOY CLUB (NBC)
(written by Chad Hodge; directed by Alan Taylor; TRT: 44:10)
The network's description: "From Academy Award-winning executive producer Brian Grazer, "The Playboy Club" is a provocative new drama about a time and place that challenged the social mores, where a visionary entrepreneur created an empire and an icon changed American culture. It's the early '60s, and the legendary Playboy Club in Chicago is the door to all of your fantasies -- and the key is the most sought-after status symbol of its kind. Inside the seductive world of the bunny, the epitome of beauty and service, the clientele rubs shoulders with the decade's biggest mobsters, politicos and entertainers. Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian, "CSI: Miami") is one of the city's top attorneys and the ultimate playboy, rubbing elbows with everyone in the city's power structure. With mysterious ties to the mob, Nick comes to the aid of Maureen (Amber Heard, "Zombieland"), the stunning and innocent new bunny who accidentally kills the leader of the Bianchi crime family.
Dating Nick is Carol-Lynne (Laura Benanti, "Take the Lead"), a bombshell and established star at the club who knows her days as a bunny are numbered and finds herself continually at odds with Billy (David Krumholtz, "Numb3rs"), the club's general manager. Adding to the charm of the Playboy club is Janie (Jenna Dewan Tatum, "American Virgin"), the carefree life of the party who is dating Max (Wes Ramsey, "CSI: Miami"), an overly protective bartender. Also starring are Naturi Naughton ("Fame") and Leah Renee ("True Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet"). In addition to Grazer ("A Beautiful Mind," "American Gangster"), the executive producers on "The Playboy Club" include Chad Hodge ("Tru Calling"), Francie Calfo ("Scoundrels"), Jason Burns ("The House Bunny") and Dick Rosenzweig ("Kendra"). Hodge also wrote the pilot, which was directed by Alan Taylor ("Mad Men," "The Sopranos"). The series is produced by 20th Century Fox Television and Imagine Television."
What did they leave out? It was previously developed as simply "Playboy" and before that "Bunny Tales." Also, Jeff Hephner was previously tapped as Nick Dalton before being recast with Eddie Cibrian.
The plot in a nutshell: "The scheming, corrupt, crime filled Windy City may have been all those things," Hugh Hefner himself notes in the opening narration. "But 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." Welcome to The Playboy Club circa 1963. And meet the girls tasked with such lofty affairs: the Playboy bunnies. There's alpha mom Carol-Lynne (Laura Benanti), the very first bunny who's leveraged said status to become a regular entertainer at the club; fresh-faced Maureen (Amber Heard), who hopes to follow in her footsteps; the married Alice (Leah Renee Cudmore), who always sees the good in everyone; Brenda (Naturi Naughton), who aspires to be the first chocolate centerfold ("You can't discriminate against these babies," she quips); and Janie (Jenna Dewan-Tatum), who struggles with dating jealous bartender Max (Wes Ramsey).
Collectively, their well being falls to Billy Rosen (David Krumholtz), the club's manager, however it's lawyer/club fixture Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian) who comes to Maureen's aid when she accidentally kills an aggressive customer while trying to flee from his unwanted advances, a development made all the more worse after it's revealed he's Clyde Hill, a key player with the Bianchi crime family. Rather than call the police, Nick decides to cover it up, a decision that costs them both dearly: for Nick, his relationship with Carol-Lynne, who misinterprets his involvement as an affair, and for Maureen, a sobering realization nothing will be the same again. But that's just the beginning of the bunnies' various foibles as each one is revealed to be running towards or running away from someone or something. Coupled with the aforementioned mob's growing interest in the club, things are about to get even more interesting at The Playboy Club, if that's even possible.
What works: To its credit, the show doesn't try to rest on the laurels of "hey look it's 1963!" or "how cute is it that raunchy then comes across as PG-13 at best now!" There's plenty of story to go around along with the nostalgia as the pilot closes with a smorgasbord of potentially juicy elements. And while it spells out its central theme a little too plainly for my tastes, the idea that this is a place where you can make yourself into anyone you want to be is a compelling one. It's also rather telling that here we are nearly 50 years later and Carol-Lynne's efforts to parlay her bunny notoriety into legitimacy remains a standard-bearer in our celebrity-driven culture.
The cast for the most part is a likeable, albeit cipher-ish set with Krumholtz's Billy (complete with Chi-ca-go accent) and Cudmore's Alice being among the most memorable. And while I could do without the indelible smirk on the face of Cibrian's Nick Dalton and the I-want-to-be-the-next-Marilyn-Monroe fervency of Heard's Maureen, they don't interfere with moving the general mechanizations of the plot along. Sure it's not the treatise on life during the period like "Mad Men" aims to be, nor should it have to be.
What doesn't: As mentioned above, the show frequently overplays its hand how magically transformative the club and Playboy in general was to the culture at large. While obviously it's a part of our lexicon, the pilot might as well claim Hef was responsible for putting a man on the moon and ending racism as we know it. It's especially frustrating because when "Playboy Club" does actually dip its toes into the history of the time, its overriding hubris robs said expeditions of their desired effect. Furthermore, the rationale for Nick's almost Sisyphean efforts to protect Maureen never quite connects.
It's one thing to go the extra mile for someone you barely know, it's another to make it the spark for a character's complete revolution. And while the latter may actually be the case - finally something to atone for his sins - we never see it or feel it in his performance. It ultimately comes off like a random development demanded by the script rather than an inherent trait we've come to learn about the character. The same goes for Maureen's frustrating reaction to the aforementioned events, including her decision to, well, you'll know it when you see it. Again they aren't necessarily dealbreakers, they just provide unnecessary bumps in what's...
The bottom line: ...relatively harmless pulpy fun.