For some reason NBC is already on the defensive about its 60’s-set Playboy bunny drama, “The Playboy Club,” weeks before it even debuts.
Why else would NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt introduce the show at Summer TV Press Tour 2011, by noting that bunnies have included not only Barbara Walters, Lauren Hutton, Deborah Harry, Sherilyn Fenn, and Barbara Bosson, but also a federal judge and a “world-renowned” immunologist?
Sure, NBC’s Utah affiliate, announced it would not air the show. But that’s kinda business as usual for that station, which also declines to air “Saturday Night Live” and has refused to air other NBC primetime shows in the past.
During the show’s Q&A session at Press Tour, thing started out well enough; one TV critic simply wondered how much time they spent making sure all the props and stuff were period-accurate, because a pal he had watched the pilot with said the keys were all wrong. We presume this meant the Playboy Club keys.
“Whoever that was, wasn’t paying attention to the right things,” show star Amber Heard shot back dismissively, kind of like she’d been prepped that this was going to be a tough crowd and she was ready to rumble.
“I hear someone use the word ‘empowering’ but I’ve heard from my female readers that a show centered on Playboy…they don’t see it as empowering,” said another critic.
“And your central story involves a woman who needs to rely on a man to get through the crisis that she in the middle of. How is this show empowering and how are you going to be able to sell female viewers on this show -- a show centered on a nudie magazine -- as empowering? the critic wondered.
In the pilot, Amber plays a naïve young woman named Maureen who is hired as a bunny at the Playboy Club in Chicago. Maureen gets pawed by a mobster in a back room of the club and, as she tries to escape, the mobster falls, and she accidentally plunges her her stiletto heel into his skull, sending the mobster to the Big Playboy Club in the sky. A club regular, Nick, who has political aspirations and mob connections, comes to her rescue, sneaking her out of the club – and over to his place.
“Well, the first thing I’d say is, it’s not based on the magazine, it’s based on The Playboy Club in 1961. It’s entirely different,” exec producer Ian Biederman responded.
“That’s an empowering institution for women. I can see that,” the critic sneered.
Things went downhill from there.
Amber took exception with having Maureen referred to as a woman in peril who gets saved by Nick.
“Don’t underestimate that character and her intelligence, and the journey she’s going to take to really rise above that. I think that the moment Nick helps her is more of a reflection of who Nick is – I think that comes at no cost to her. Maureen allows herself to be helped when she needs it. And she by no means relies on any character, male or female, in this story, and never has. And we’ll see that journey.”
Then, Amber began to explain to the press in the room, about the 60’s:
“Ultimately, it’s a different generation,” she said. “ There were different opportunities and different expectations for women.
“ And I am fortunate to a part of this new generation where I don’t need to choose between combat boots and an apron.
“I can do it in heels!” she said, like she meant it to sting.
Another critic wanted to talk about one of the show’s promo taglines – the one about the club being a place where men hold the key but women run the show.
“That just seems ridiculous to me… all the Playboy Clubs were run by men. And Hugh Hefner, I’m sure, had a lot to say about how women were portrayed, what they could do, couldn’t do. How are women running the show here in reality?”
“There is no Playboy Club without these women,” explained cast member Naturi Naughton. “ I mean, at the end of the day, of course the men hold the key. But let’s be real. This is a world that you come to enjoy the music. You walk in. You feel like you’re in this fantasy, and that’s what it was. It’s like Disney World for adults.”
“And it also wasn’t a situation where the girls were sitting on laps and being slapped on their bottom,” chimed in cast member Leah Renee.
“There were very strict rules about the girls not being touched,” she continued. “They were walked to their cars at the end of every one of their shifts… So they were very protected…The way they served their drinks, we had to do the ‘Bunny Dip,’ which is one of the things we learned in all of our training. And it was the purpose of not having their, excuse me, their breasts spilling out on the table.”
While the press tried to figure out when non-spilling-over breasts came to mean “running the show,” Amber decided to weigh in:
“I think it’s a common, puritanical kind of way we look at things, that we consider if it involves sexuality that somehow the women must be compromised.
“And I think it’s just chauvinistic to deny women her sexuality. I think that it’s about empowering. It comes down ultimately to choices. And just like anything else, if there are choices are available and they’re making the choice, they’re not being exploited.”
Some critic noted that Gloria Steinem had come to Summer TV Press Tour 2011 just the other day, to talk about an HBO documentary on her life. Back in the 60’s, Steinem got a job as a Playboy bunny in New York in order to write magazine articles about the experience. In those articles, she explained how the bunnies stuffed their costume bosoms with dry-cleaning bags in order to make their breasts look larger, how they had to turn over a portion of their tips to the club, how they were shadowed by detectives hired by the club to make sure they weren’t canoodling the patrons, and how any bunny who would take off her clothes for a Playboy magazine centerfold immediately got a raise.
During her appearance, a TV critic asked Steinem for her thoughts on NBC’s new Playboy Club series, as well as ABC’s new 60’s-set “Pan Am” drama, about the stewardesses for that now-defunct airline who, in the pilot episode, got their rumps slapped to make sure they were wearing girdles, and had to weigh in regularly to make sure they weren’t putting on weight.
Steinem speculated these shows were a a response to the tough economic times. When times get tough she explained, men tend to veer towards two poles. At one extreme, the very worst of them tend toward sadomasochism. The best best of them veer toward nostalgia.
So what we’re seeing on primetime TV in the coming season, she said, is “the nostalgia industry.”
She also wondered what was the intent of the Playboy Club series. “It is 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.”
Amber had something to say about Steinem too:
“Well, she forgets the viewership in that statement,” Amber sniffed.
“She talks about men writing the show and us girls being somehow puppets in this play that we have no control over. But…every women up here is an independent, self sufficient, intelligent woman making a career for herself, and we’re representing a group of women who were doing the same in a time where options were completely different.”
Here’s where exec producer Biederman jumped back in:
“I would dispute -- I mean, [Steinem’s] welcome to her opinion. My opinion is that these are very difficult and complex and often sort of adverse times for people, and the early ’60s were a very hopeful time, with Camelot and the Kennedys and all kinds of things beginning and becoming.
“That’s what the show is about and I think that’s why people are attracted to it right now, to take a little break from the way things are,” he concluded, pretty much confirming Steinem’s assessment of the situation -- which, on the bright side, means Biederman is one of the best guys.