Critics will inevitably do some comparing-and-contrasting in appraising the fall’s two early-1960s dramas, “Playboy Club” and ABC’s “Pan Am,” a juxtaposition that favors NBC’s glossy if not wholly satisfying period soap. Advance hand-wringing about racy content appears wholly overblown, if perhaps helpful from a promotional standpoint. Yet the setting only fitfully works as a prism through which to contemplate the present — one of the inherent strengths of “Mad Men,” to which comparisons are also inevitable — meaning that the serialized elements and characters must prove more alluring than what’s initially revealed to keep this bunny going, and going.
Not that series creators don’t try, kick-starting the premiere with the accidental death of a thuggish club patron after he gets more than just fresh with a wide-eyed new Bunny, Maureen (Amber Heard). Coming to her aid is Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian), a slick ladies man and lawyer who, we’re told, every guy wants to be, and every girl wants to marry.
“Women’ll be the death of you,” he’s told at one point, and given the mix of money and mobsters surrounding the Chicago locale, that threat is meant to linger.
Indeed, those elements contribute to a swinging atmosphere the show pushes hard to sell. Exceedingly handsome as pilots go, the initial flourishes range from the music (stand-ins for Ike & Tina Turner perform in the pilot) to the period soundtrack to the unfulfilled promise of seeing more skin than networks normally unveil.
Past that, the series’ prospects remain as shrouded in mystery as an unopened centerfold. The bottom line is “Mad Men” has never been a popular smash, inviting skepticism as to whether this kind of series can deliver on a broadly commercial level.
There are a couple of nice twists involving secondary players, and given the challenge filling those Bunny outfits, the program is well cast, with David Krumholtz as the club’s fidgety manager and Laura Benanti as the queen bee, who’s dating Nick and jealous of Maureen.
Still, given the emphasis on soapy doings and shiny exteriors, the serial threatens to short-change its most interesting attributes, glancingly commenting on issues pertaining to sociology and the sexual revolution (such as a Bunny marveling, “I make more money than my father”) while lacking the latitude to truly probe them.
Ultimately, “Playboy Club” appears to represent a conceptual seduction — a series meant to seem more provocative, risky and cable-like than it is. (Voiceover narration from Hugh Hefner — depicted so that his face stays obscured, like Blofeld in early Bond movies — feels oddly cheesy, and wisely won’t be repeated beyond the introduction.)
Credit the pilot with achieving one objective, teasingly dangling a carrot designed to lure those viewers who do turn up into sampling a second hour. Even so, while the magazine’s read mostly by men, the series will rely on a female audience — meaning that if NBC’s “Playboy Club” bet proves scantily dressed up with no place to go, women will indeed have been the death of it.