Death by Pilot: the End of the Playboy Club and What Could Have Saved it

It's no secret I'm obsessed* with Mad Men, not least because it lends some legitimacy to my admittedly-antiquated Hollywood entertainment knowledge (having Mad Men around has made people my age, for the first time ever, give a slight look of recognition when I mention Ann-Margret).


But, more than the personal satisfaction Mad Men and its allusions give me, it's just a damn good show.  The writing is theatrical -- equal parts wit and silence, the latter of which is almost entirely new to good television in post-Sorkin world. (Meredith Blake from The New Yorker went so far as to call it, "the television show that sometimes thinks it’s a novel.")  The acting embraces some dramatic conventions from Hollywood's bygone Golden Age (it seems no article on Mad Men can ever avoid using the word "bygone;" if I make it through this piece without saying "Tinseltown" we can all be amazed together), toned down to accommodate the more modern subtleties of the small screen.  Creator Matthew Weiner is a stickler for historical accuracy, which, as Bruce Handy put it in Vanity Fair, "grounds" the show in reality, no matter what drama is spinning around it.  Its scenes are composed beautifully, and, as numerous interviews with the entire creative team show us, there is nothing on the show that happens by accident, no outfit, no underscore, no backdrop, that happens without thought and reason and purpose. And Mad Men is just that: so purposeful, no matter how minute the story lines are, no matter how personal and isolated the drama is, it's consistently forward-moving, inexplicably universal, and forever bolstered by purpose.


This all being said, I had wanted to spend a blog comparing the nearly-flawless Mad Men to the two other new 1960s acolyte shows that have premiered this season, NBC's The Playboy Club, and ABC's Pan Am.  But every other critic in the entire world beat me to it, and then, Playboy Club was abruptly cancelled after just three episodes.  So, instead of doing "Alison's '60s TV Roundup" like I'd planned, I'm going to take a moment to defend Playboy Club and all of it's critically-panned comrades whose pilot episodes cursed them with an unshakable anchor, and dragged them into the murky oblivion of "cancelled-dom."

The Playboy Club was awful, just awful.  But I don't think it deserved to be cancelled.  It was everything everyone said about it, for sure, but surely it wasn't as terrible as some of the drivel still on TV, and it was at least something different, right?  Certainly, it had neither the high-writing nor high-culture of Mad Men, but if Mad Men were the standard to which we held our programming, there would be about six shows on television and you'd really be overpaying for your digital cable.  Playboy Club was at least tawdry, campy, guilty-pleasure fun, and, despite its cringe-worthy "Bunny" puns, strained mob backdrop, and its anachronistic treatment of everything from race to women's lib, I'd planned to watch every episode.

The hot one, the black one, the gay one. Oh whoops, I just ruined the plot.
So, how you gonna go cancelling the show after three episodes, NBC?  I understand it wasn't going to get picked up for another season, but if the episodes are already shot, edited and ready to go, why not move it to a less-coveted time slot for the remainder of the season?  There are lots of low-premiering shows that pick up steam over time.  (Remember how bored I was with the first few episodes of The Wire?)  We've barely even had enough time with the show to really judge it!

At least one critic, Nancy Franklin, agreed with me, and expressed dismay at having to review shows based only on the usually-shaky, heavy-handed, formulaic pilot episodes. Pilots are almost never unbelievably great (notable exception for the cinematic Walking Dead pilot, which then, of course, had to deal with a major second-episode sophomore slump). Because pilots are less-than-perfect attempts at setting a tone for a show that may morph and grow and add layers over time, she writes, "the tone of pre-season commenting tends to be waggish and dismissive." Depressing for everyone, right?

I think the death of The Playboy Club owes to the too-high expectations surrounding it. It's no secret that major networks and HBO turned down Mad Men, leaving it to be picked up by the underling cable channel, AMC (which was completely revived by the Emmy winner, and now occupies a new, respected niche). Based on the success of Mad Men, I assume, NBC gave Playboy Club a chance.  Playboy is/was no worse than such soapy, silly fare as The O.C. or Gossip Girl or One Tree Hill, but those shows don't survive on Networks -- they live on Cable.  Playboy's high profile and older target audience was its downfall from the beginning.

Luckily for us, there's still Pan Am, which -- if we're judging on pilots -- was certainly the superior of the two shows.  We can cling to that shiny, bright-eyed show with our little, gloved 1960s fingers until 2012, when the rightful heir, Mad Men, finally comes back.  So long, Playboy Club.  I'm sorry Kim Kardashian has a show and you don't.

"Bye, Bye, Bunny?"
*As Nancy Franklin said, "we say that we “love” certain sitcoms, but we become “obsessed” with dramas."
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1 comments:

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iZombie
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October 7, 2011 at 9:44 AM delete

well, i just couldn't get into it... it needed to be more shhhwank than murder-death-kill-hide-the-body.

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