Pilot rapid-fire review: The Playboy Club

The next couple weeks are going to be insane. There are so many new series debuting and unfortunately, there is only so much time in the day for me to write about television while balancing my “real” life. You know, the one I spend on Twitter. ANYWAY, I’m going to try to touch on each new series once it airs a pilot, but these posts probably won’t be too long or too in-depth unless they really need to be. And if certain things debut together, I’ll probably talk about them together.

If you’re interested in the television industry and news related to it, by the time a pilot finally makes it to air, you feel like you already know what it is and the beats its going to follow. You can arguably know how most pilots work anyway because they are all so predictable these days, but listen to a few podcasts, read a few articles during development season and watch a handful of clips after upfronts and you’re pretty much set. I’m not entirely sure how this impacts my personal interpretations or reactions to episodes, but it has to have some influence.

So when nearly everyone said that The Playboy Club was going to be a relatively dreadful pilot to watch, I had no ignorant expectations that it would be any different. And unfortunately, this opening hour didn’t do a whole lot to subvert my predetermined expectations or thoughts. If I can borrow a phrase from the immortal Dennis Green for a second, The Playboy Club is what we thought it was.

It presents a hilariously skewed revisionist history of the 1960s, Playboy and the eponymous club. The women are in control and independent! They make so much money! They’re starting gay social movements! They’re evening up the racial inequalities! They’re so independent that they were able to chose to be bulimic! Also, they can kill people. I expected the terribly misguided female empowerment bits. What I didn’t quite expect is just how much of a boring slog this opening episode would be to get through. For a series that presents itself as so sexy, stylish and luxurious, The Playboy Club sure takes itself really, really seriously. Within moments, there is a murder and a subsequent cover-up and it’s really all downhill from there. People sulk, pout and try to get into arguments but don’t really have it within them to muster up the energy to make a real go of it. For a bunch of women excited about how much CHANGE THEY ARE CAUSING, these ladies seem pretty glazed over and disinterested.

And of course, the performances are as-advertised as well. I know most of the jokes have been about Eddie Cibrian’s “work” in the too-obvious Don Draper-y role and he definitely struggles here. However, it’s not exactly for the reasons I expected and he’s probably not the worst offender in this pilot. Amber Heard was definitely cast for reasons other than her acting abilities, but she’s pretty awful. Her character experiences the most “stuff” here and for someone who just grabbed a new ridiculous job, got assaulted and subsequently killed and helped dispose of the assailant’s body, Heard’s character is unbelievably chill. There’s a moment or two where she looks genuinely terrified by what’s happening around her, but mostly she just stands around with a blank look on her face while Cibrian’s character does all the leg-work. You know, because that’s what independent women in the 1960s do: let the man take care of everything. Wait.

Like I said, Cibrian isn’t as horrible as I assumed he’d be. I don’t hate him as a performer — hell, I own the only season of Invasion on DVD, folks — but the role is too reliant on a certain kind of inner-intensity and charisma that he doesn’t quite have. Cibrian is just fine in roles where’s called upon to play a normal guy (like Invasion), but his Nick Dalton is supposed to be coolest SOB in Chicago and it just doesn’t seem that way. The pilot spends a lot of time having other characters talk about how insanely cool, smooth, sexy and amazing Cibrian’s Dalton is, but never really shows him doing much of anything that reinforces those adjectives.

Yet, I don’t think we can lay all the blame at the feet of the actors. Heard is dreadful and Cibrian is miscast, but Chad Hodge’s script is really the problem. The script is too busy rewriting a decade’s social trends to bother itself with compelling character interactions or dialogue. And again, the way the narrative unfolds here is so uninspired and boring. Bad, bad script. The actors certainly make matters worse, but it’s a generally porous combination.

Trying to establish a Mad Men-style series on broadcast television isn’t the worst idea of all-time, but trying to establish one that aims for overheated social commentary and faux-female empowerment might just be. The Playboy Club was never, ever going to be a “good” series, however, a less self-serious and self-celebratory approach could have made this a fun, soapy escapist hour. It is not that.

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