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Hot on the tail of ‘Mad Men’

Cliched ‘Playboy Club’ offers up a moody noir of girls and gangsters

From left: Amber Heard, Naturi Naughton, and Leah Renee in NBC’s drama “The Playboy Club.’’ From left: Amber Heard, Naturi Naughton, and Leah Renee in NBC’s drama “The Playboy Club.’’ (Matt Dinerstein)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / September 19, 2011

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It’s up to you to decide whether being a Playboy bunny at the very first Playboy Club in 1963 was an important part of the women’s liberation movement. NBC’s “The Playboy Club,’’ with voice-over narration by Hugh Hefner, suggests that the club, in Chicago, enabled women in their effort to get out of the kitchen, to earn money of their own. Pretty women only, of course - the ones who could fit into those snug, silky outfits that invited drunk, horny men to view them as rabbits, animals known for their innocence and fertility.

“It was the early ’60s,’’ Hef tells us, “and the bunnies were some of the only women in the world who could be anyone they wanted to be.’’

There may well be a juicy idea for a TV series in “The Playboy Club,’’ an opportunity to render the lives of post-“Ozzie and Harriet’’ women in a historic decade of social change. Oh wait - there definitely is a juicy idea at play, and “Mad Men’’ has already realized it by delving fearlessly into the uncomfortable struggles of women in the workplace and at home with callous husbands. But “The Playboy Club’’ is a dreary failure, a show that squanders all of its potential by sticking to ancient cliches about women, men, and mobsters while straining for a moody, noir atmosphere. Tonight’s premiere, at 10 on Channel 7, wants to be hard-boiled, but it’s really half-baked.

The darkly lit show, created by Chad Hodge, is one of two new network shows that attempt to borrow some early 1960s “Mad Men’’ mojo, by slathering on the Brylcreem and lighting up the cigarettes. The other, ABC’s “Pan Am,’’ is more successful at its goal, which is to be a period soap opera against an international backdrop. “The Playboy Club’’ plods forward with no ballast, hoping that the vibrant early ’60s music and the miles of bunny cleavage will compensate for the lack of original plotting and characters. I had very little interest in going back for a second episode, despite the attractive pre-mod stylings and the Sammy Davis Jr. references. I felt as though I could foresee exactly what would happen to each character the moment they were introduced.

The star is Eddie Cibrian, who tries for the debonair mystery of Jon Hamm’s Don Draper on “Mad Men.’’ He plays lawyer Nick Dalton, who is dating fierce queen-bee bunny Carol-Lynne (Laura Benanti), but who appears to be falling for newbie bunny Maureen (Amber Heard). On her first night at work, Maureen has to defend herself from violent advances by a mob boss. All too ready to be her white knight, the deep-dimpled Dalton helps her hide after the attack. Meanwhile, her co-workers keep an eye on her, including Brenda (Naturi Naughton), a black woman who calls herself a “chocolate bunny’’ and, referring to her breasts, says, “You can’t discriminate against these babies.’’

Only David Krumholtz is somewhat interesting, and that’s because, as the cold general manager of the Playboy Club, he is so remarkably different from his character on “Numb3rs.’’ Cibrian is wooden and unengaging, and so is Heard. She always seems a beat behind her character, as she naively questions bunny rules and dreams of being a star. Like everyone else in “The Playboy Club,’’ she’s a stick figure - albeit one with a giant pompom on her butt.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.

THE PLAYBOY CLUB Starring: Amber Heard, Eddie Cibrian, David Krumholtz

On: NBC, Channel 7

Time: Tonight, 10-11