I got out of the salt mines early today, and the first thing I did was read Historiann, who made a great catch on Nora Ephron’s response to the new Mad Men rip-off, The Playboy Club (stay tuned for Pan Am, premiering on ABC September 25.)
The second thing I did was microwave some lunch and settle down in front of the DVR to watch me some Bunnies.
The verdict? It’s bad television, not because it celebrates sexism (which it does) but because it does so in a way that does not permit a transgressive identification, or perhaps any identification, with any character in the show. Now, I would disagree with at least one of the points that Ephron makes about The Playboy Club: “Trust me, no one wanted to be a Bunny.” No one wants to take comprehensive doctoral exams either, but that’s hardly the point. Even though most committees don’t make you wear skin-tight sateen, spike heels and a big fluffy tail, it is a degrading, depressing and ill-paid activity that Leads To Better Things. Sometimes. And if the show were any good we could get to the false consciousness issue.
The Playboy Club opens with a couple cheesy shots of Chicago and a voiceover that alludes to the strong presence of organized crime in that city (“I am shocked! Shocked! Next perhaps you will tell me that the Daley machine is corrupt?”) We learn later that the voice is Hugh Hefner’s, a confusion that might have easily been cleared up in the script, but it is also one of many failed attempts to produce a racy, anything goes atmosphere. Similar moments, like the announcement that there will be a nude pool party at Hef’s (which our main Bunny Maureen, improbably, attends in her baby doll nightgown), or a stage show of Black rock n’ rollers who inspire the Bunnies to a spontaneous Twist with each other, also fall flat. Chicago, we learn, is a place where “Anything can happen to anybody — or any Bunny.” Well, not exactly anything. That Bunny better not be saving up her tips for law school, or trying to get a credit card and an apartment without her husband’s signature.
But of course, a Bunny doesn’t need an apartment, because she lives in the cheery girls’ boarding school atmosphere of the Playboy Mansion, with Hugh Hefner, who is represented only by the voiceover and a silhouette. Hefner, a complex and irritating character who did actually change the history of sex, is thus reduced to an imitation Charlie (of Charlie’s Angels, a group of women who actually do look feminist compared to the pseudo-liberated Bunnies, and who are being revived day after tomorrow by ABC.)
Quick plot summary of episode 1? Blonde Maureen, who has migrated to Chicago from the sticks of Fort Wayne, has just become a Bunny. Naive and unskilled, she puts down her cigarette tray to dance with a dominating older man who tries to feel her up (can you believe how terrible sexism used to be?) She is pursued, molested and almost raped in the back room by this guy, who turns out to be Bianchi, a capo in the Chicago mob. Nick Dalton, a handsome rogue, Playboy Club key holder and civil rights attorney (??) comes on the scene for reasons I wasn’t clear about and intervenes. In the course of the struggle, Maureen swings at Bianchi with her F**k Me shoe, stabs him in the neck with the heel by mistake, and he bleeds out. She and Nick dispose of the body in the river.
Are you with me?
As it turns out, Nick (a pseudo-Don Draper) is in a relationship (although not, apparently, an exclusive one — it’s the sexual revolution you idiot!!) with Carolyn, the queen bee Bunny (a rotten substitute for honey pot Joan “Joanie/Red” Harris.) Maureen (a pseudo-Peggy) is discovered at Nick’s apartment by Carolyn and, although she has only washed the blood off in the shower and draped herself in Nick’s shirt, Carolyn comes to the obvious conclusion, one you might come to even if it were not the (wait for it) sexual revolution. To wrap this up quickly: Carolyn ends her life working the floor and becomes the supervisor of all Bunnies, Maureen is in trouble with the Mob, and Maureen and Nick are on their way to becoming an item (even though Carolyn has made up a new rule that Bunnies can’t date key holders.)
Are you still with me? Boring, right? The Playboy Club is working so hard to get us excited about the sexual revolution that it hits us with cliche after cliche about how fabulous sex is, really everybody’s doing it and it’s, well, so freeing. Nick is, we can tell, really a good person (despite the fact that he’s “not ready for marriage”) because he fights for Chicago’s powerless African American poor. We find out later that the writers have also revived a tired-a$$ old story line and made him the adopted son in the Bianchi family who then left, disavowed their evilness, and redeemed himself through Good Works, although not, apparently before taking a few bags of money with him that I am pretty sure he wasn’t earning as a civil rights attorney. He is also planning to run for State’s Attorney.
The dialogue also stinks. For example:
- Carolyn greets Nick in the club, tells him she heard about the settlement he got for some “victims” he represents, and asks how she can become a “victim” too. “You couldn’t be a victim if you tried,” he says. (Get it? Despite what “feminists” think, women in the sex industries were not victims.)
- Asked why she doesn’t quit the Playboy Club, one Bunny says in surprise: ”The money’s too good. I make more money than my father.” (Get it? Women were empowered by their massive earning power as Bunnies. They earned even more than the doctors, lawyers, college professors, and plumbers they were not allowed to be in the 1960s.)
- Nick Dawson on Carolyn: “She’s smart.” Friend of Nick Dawson: ”Who needs smart?” (Get it? Some men were sexist. But no one thought well of them.)
- Nick, sternly to Maureen: ”You have no idea what these people are capable of.” (Yes, they might take you for a ride and make you listen to bad dialogue.)
- Maureen, half-naked with wet hair and standing in Nick’s closet, to Carolyn: ”This isn’t what you think!” (I’m just over here studying for my LSATs.)
OK, I’ll stop. There is this intriguing subplot at the end where it turns out that a Bunny, who is stealing money from the club (it’s actually not clear whether she is stealing it or whether producers expected us to believe that Bunnies made $150 a night in tips) and her male friend turn out to be homosexuals and are starting a chapter of the Mattachine Society with money acquired from the drooling losers who go to the Playboy Club. But again, the producers blow it: the Bunny, now in mufti, comes into a room that has a big banner up that says “The Mattachine Society,” which is the gay equivalent of having a banner up in 1954 that says “The Communist Party” so that all who enter, including the police, know they are in the right meeting.
I’m not even going to tell you about the “Chocolate Bunny,” who insists she gets called worse things “out there.” I can think of few things worse than being called Chocolate Bunny, including perhaps the word she is referring to.
To sum up, I hope the cast members (who, peculiarly, are not even good looking enough to be memorable) have not quit their day jobs. This is one of those shows whose main problem is not a lack of political correctness, or even that it is bad history: it’s just a bad show. Feminism will triumph over this one by default.