In the battle of the "Mad Men"-inspired, 1960s-set soaps -- ABC's "Pan Am" vs. NBC's "The Playboy Club" -- "Pan Am," debutingSept. 25, definitely is the more entertaining series. But "Playboy Club" (10 p.m. Monday, WPXI), despite some ridiculous plot turns even for a soap, also manages to sneak in hints of a socially substantive storyline.
- When: 10 p.m. Monday, NBC
- Starring: Amber Heard.
It all starts with a murder -- by high heel shoe -- as a new Bunny, Maureen (Amber Heard), gets in over her head the first week on the job at Chicago's Playboy Club. Attorney Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian, trying and failing to channel Jon Hamm's effortless Don Draper cool) comes to her rescue, much to the annoyance of his girlfriend, Carol-Lynne (Laura Benanti, "Eli Stone"), another Bunny and singer.
Other characters include obnoxious club manager Billy Rosen (David Krumholtz, "NUMB3RS"), a self-described "chocolate Bunny" named Brenda (Naturi Naughton, who also played a Bunny on "Mad Men"), and Bunny Alice (Leah Renee), who's hiding a few secrets, including one that allows the show to explore what, at the time, was a hidden subculture.
There's a crime story here -- the pilot episode's murder victim was a mob boss, and Nick used to work for an organized crime family -- but it's less interesting than the soapy shenanigans at the club. Ms. Benanti, in particular, makes a positive impression when she interrogates Bunny Maureen. It's a taut, suspenseful scene.
"The Playboy Club" also features 1960s-era musical numbers performed at the club and at the Chicago Playboy mansion, giving the series an "American Dreams" feel, albeit less family oriented. Not that "The Playboy Club" is as scandalous as the Parents Television Council would have you believe.
There's nothing in "The Playboy Club" that hasn't already been seen/heard in prime time on a broadcast network. In fact, it's tame compared to one particular scene on "The Good Wife" last season. The Mormon church-owned station in Salt Lake City is refusing to air "Playboy Club" simply because of its title -- and the title may be the most provocative thing about the show.
The pilot bends over backward to try to frame the Bunnies as empowered feminists -- this feels like a stretch -- and we'll leave it to historians to fight about the accuracy of that portrayal. If the show can rein in some of its more outrageous plot tendencies and focus on music and social issues, it could grow into a "Club" viewers will want to frequent.
TV writer Rob Owen: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.