Open Mic

NBC's Upcoming 'Playboy Club': Nostalgic Fun or Something More Sinister? Is It OK to Ignore the Sins of the Past by Saying Hey, It's Just a Prime-Time Soap, Baby

Hillary Atkin Posted August 4, 2011 at 11:28 AM

Comparisons to "Mad Men" were brushed aside. The controversy over a Salt Lake City affiliate's refusal to run the program was glossed over -- because another station picked it up. The argument was set forth that the show is about women's empowerment.

Those were the headlines from the NBC TCA panel on the network's upcoming one-hour drama "The Playboy Club,” set to premiere Monday, Sept. 19, at 10 p.m. ET/9 p.m. Central.

Set in 1961 at Chicago's Playboy Club, the provocative new series is certain to be one of the most scrutinized shows of the fall season. It’s already engendering controversy -- and intrigue -- well before its premiere.

“It’s the early ‘60s and the legendary Playboy Club in Chicago is the door to all your fantasies ... and the key is the most sought-after status symbol of its time” is how it’s being billed by NBC.

Starring Eddie Cibrian, Amber Heard, David Krumholtz and Laura Bernanti, “The Playboy Club” represents a risky foray for the network, a high-budget period drama, but one with a built-in brand name.

Yet seemingly denying some of the brand’s attributes, executive producer Ian Biederman told the audience of television critics gathered in the Beverly Hilton’s International Ballroom that the show is not racy or exploitive -- and stressed the difference between Playboy magazine and the Playboy clubs.

"In terms of content, it will be mild. These are characters who are in a certain time and certain place. The show will be a lot of fun. It will have a ton of music and lots of energy," he said, differentiating it from the noir aspects of AMC’s critically acclaimed “Mad Men,” which takes place during the same early 1960s time period.

When questioned about the tagline "Men hold the key, women run the show" and whether the bunny costumes were intrinsically sexist, female cast members became defensive. One talked about how they were coached not to let their breasts rest on the table as they were serving customers -- and then delved into a discussion about how bunnies are not centerfolds, while acknowledging that some bunnies became Playmates.

Biederman said becoming a Playboy bunny was a highly sought-after job at a time when women did not have many career choices -- and very few highly paid ones. He promised that they will be portrayed as intelligent and empowered women.

Cast member Naturi Naughton -- who coincidentally has guest-starred on “Mad Men” -- said her role as what she termed one of the few "chocolate [African-American] bunnies" was as a strong, ambitious, confident young woman.

The tension in the room was broken by castmate Jennifer Lewis, who said, "Someone has to have sex in the bathroom” before discussing her character as representing a big step up for black women coming off welfare.

Hmmm. We wonder whether Biederman or Naughton or Lewis has read Gloria Steinem’s landmark 1963 article “I Was a Playboy Bunny.” A journalist at the time, Steinem decided to go undercover to become a Playboy bunny at the Playboy Club in New York and report on her experiences.

In the piece [we could not find it online, but it’s available in her still in-print paperback “Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (Second Edition)”] Steinem explains that she applied for the job as a bunny by answering an ad. Here’s a portion of that ad, as Steinem recounts in her article:

GIRLS:
Do Playboy Club Bunnies Really
Have Glamorous Jobs,
Meet Celebrities, And
Make Top Money?

Yes, it’s true! Attractive young girls can now earn $200-$300 a week at the fabulous New York Playboy Club, enjoy the glamorous and exciting aura of show business, and have the opportunity to travel to other Playboy Clubs throughout the world. Whether serving drinks, snapping pictures, or greeting guests at the door, the Playboy Club is the stage -- the Bunnies are the stars.

Steinem found the job short on glamour, excitement and money anywhere close to the $200-$300 a week mentioned in the ad.

Besides discovering that being a Playboy club bunny was just plain hard work -- plus painful from wearing the deliberately ill-fitting, too tight bunny outfit -- journalist Steinem found it exploitive and demeaning.

She wrote about some of her experiences her first day waiting on tables as a bunny: “One of the customers gave me his Playboy key together with a room key from the Hotel Astor. I gave it back and started to fill out the check.

“‘Well,’ he said, slapping the table with delight, ‘you can’t blame a man for trying.’

“‘Nope,’ said his friend, ‘you can’t tell us your address, but nothing’s to stop you from remembering ours.’”

Steinem continued: “With the drinks balanced on my tray, I approached the two [men]. ‘Are you married,’ asked the table slapper? I said no. ‘Well, it wouldn’t matter anyway, because I’m married too!’ Pointing my right hip into the table, I bent my knees, inclined myself backward in the required Bunny dip, and placed the glasses squarely on the napkins. I felt like an idiot.”

After the article was published, for a time Steinem says she regretted writing it, partly on account of the “loss of serious journalistic assignments because I had now become a Bunny -- and it didn’t matter why.”

One of the good things that came out of the experience, she writes, was the 1985 TV movie made from her article, though Steinem hates the title, “A Bunny’s Tale.”

Finally, she writes that one of the long-term results of writing the piece was “realizing that all women are Bunnies. After feminism arrived in my life, I stopped regretting that I had written this article. Thanks to the television version, I also began to take pleasure in the connections it made with women who might not have picked up a feminist book or magazine, but who responded to the rare sight of realistic working conditions and a group of women who supported each other.”

As fate would have it, Steinem was also at the TCA press tour the other day, publicizing an upcoming documentary on HBO, and she was asked about the upcoming Playboy Club show on NBC. Lisa de Moraes of The Washington Post wrote about Steinem’s comments that Steinem “wondered what was the intent of the Playboy Club series. [Is it] aggrandizing the past in a nostalgic way, or is it showing the problems of the past in order to show that we have come forward and continue to come forward?’ she wondered out loud, adding, ‘I somehow think the Playboy show is maybe not doing that.’”

Both "Playboy Club' actress Amber Heard and show producer Biederman took exception to Steinem’s conclusion.

As for actor Cibrian, who plays a character named Nick Dalton in the show, he said he has studied up on the period by looking at photos and reading books that describe the era. In order to inform his character, however, he said he did not have to look further than the present-day establishments of Chicago -- and witnessing how businessmen brashly treated waitresses serving them lunch.

Yet 50 years later, there's no denying that other things have changed. "People smoked and drank, and didn't think about the consequences," he said, discussing an era when mobsters, celebrities and politicians all rubbed shoulders.

Those interactions will be reflected in the show, set to a soundtrack of Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles and Sammy Davis Jr.

We already know someone gets murdered, but will Cibrian’s Nick Dalton be broadcast television's Don Draper, the enigmatic man around whom everything else revolves?

We're betting viewers in Salt Lake City, and everywhere else, will tune in to find out. Along with wanting to see those iconic bunny costumes, worn by enlightened, empowered women making a good living.#

Chuck Ross contributed to this entry.