Why the first show canceled for the fall TV season deserved to die.
Last week, much like salmon leap forward in a river, the first shows of the fall TV season struggled for life upstream. Meanwhile, studio executives wearing the skins of endangered grizzly bears swiped at them from rocks in the water, gnawing at the flesh of bad jokes and ill-timed dramatic pauses. The first TV show of the season to get its tail chewed off? That would be NBC’s “The Playboy Club.”
NBC swiftly canned its knock-off to AMC’s critically-acclaimed wunderkind “Mad Men” after it proved to be a big ratings disappointment. It was also condemned by the Parents Television Council for its “racy” content. “The Playboy Club” tried to bring back the early 1960s, when Playboy bunnies were pre-silicone and hair pieces, and men could still be men. (Whatever that means. Because “The Playboy Club” never managed to explain it.) The end result? We’re happy to show it the door.
Hugh Hefner himself introduced us to the era, telling us his club was “a place where anything could happen to anybody. Or any bunny.” But the Playboy bunny costume was about as interesting as any of the characters got. Its heroes and heroines were merely one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs of era stereotypes. Club man Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian) stalked about the club doing his best Don Draper impersonation, mostly as a prop to a cadre of unrealistic female characters. The ingénue, the threatened older women, and the cynic all splashed together onscreen poorly. You half-expected Hugh Hefner himself to walk on screen with a soapy sponge to clean up the tropes spiraling out all over the club floor.
Hugh Hefner defended this debacle, telling Entertainment Weekly that his show was better suited for cable. “I’m sorry NBC’s The Playboy Club didn’t find its audience,” he wrote to Entertainment Weekly. “It should have been on cable, aimed at a more adult audience.” Fair enough. Trying to write edgy material for a network show is like trying to ask your doctor if you can drink alcohol with your prescriptions. You’re supposed to be serving up sugary, family-friendly fare that viewers 18-49 are going to drag themselves off of Hulu to watch.
But “The Playboy Club” wasn’t too edgy for primetime; it was too silly. It dumbed down sexism like it was an iconic institution we were supposed to miss. There’s no need for artfully-woven characters and subtle story-telling when there are push-up bras and satin corsets. Its writing and plotting was on-the-nose obvious from opening scene to end. AMC’s “Mad Men” succeeds brilliantly with women in similarly subservient roles because you understand where everyone is coming from, even if it’s in a place we’re glad no longer overtly exists. “The Playboy Club” just expected us to reminisce as if we were nostalgic for limited choices.
And this is why we’re glad to see it go. We understand retro-sexism when it dives deeper below the surface. When it looks at the underlying forces at work in the early 1960s that later birthed the feminist movement. Instead, NBC’s venture made us feel like we were literally thumbing through a Playboy magazine. It’s nice to see all the pretty costumes or lack thereof, but what’s the point when it’s all just a surface fantasy? The Playboy Empire has never been about portraying a realistic representation of femininity, but rather an image of gleeful subservience tucked into a costume. In the end, we just felt like we had witnessed something we’d rather forget – or at the least, move past.