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SHOW PATROL

Review: 'The Playboy Club' tells sexy, fluffy tales

By Curt Wagner

RedEye

11:04 AM CDT, September 19, 2011

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NBC's 1960s set drama "The Playboy Club" hasn't even premiered, yet critics have had their tails in a twist for months.

An NBC affiliate in Salt Lake City refused to air it. Feminist author Gloria Steinem, who famously went undercover as a Bunny for a magazine piece, urged a boycott. The Parents Television Council and other conservative watchdog groups are out to get it.

It’s not even that risqué. But what the detractors are whining about has more to do with the Playboy brand than anything else, and I say cool your heels. “The Playboy Club” (9 p.m. Sept. 19, NBC; 2 ½ stars out of 4) isn’t about posing nude for a magazine.

It’s also not NBC’s “Mad Men,” although the critical success of that AMC show is an obvious inspiration (for this and ABC’s new “Pan Am”). “The Playboy Club” doesn’t offer the keen insights into its era that “Mad Men” does, and I can respect that.

As one Bunny says, “We’re at the party, and the party just started.” “The Playboy Club” is the party. It’s retro-soap filled with music, martinis, glitz and glamour. And yes, the buxom Bunnies who waited on members of the first Playboy nightclub, which Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner just so happened to open in Chicago in 1960.

If you can forget any knee-jerk reaction to the idea of the show, and forgive historical inaccuracies and a bit of hypocrisy, you might enjoy its mob mystery and an intriguing gay subplot, not to mention the fabulous Laura Benanti—and Eddie Cibrian’s dimples.

Talk about eye candy. And ear candy.

Tony winner Benanti, one of the show’s best assets, gets the premiere rolling with a sexy rendition of “Chicago.” Benanti plays Carol-Lynne, a veteran Bunny with her sights set on running the club. That ambition puts her in direct conflict with the club’s manager, Billy Rosen, played with a wonderfully dry wit by David Krumholtz. When they’re onscreen together, sparks fly.

Their clash is one major storyline that melds into another involving new Bunny Maureen (Amber Heard) and Cibrian’s playboy lawyer Nick Dalton, who come together after a mobster’s lecherous manhandling of Maureen ends in his death by stiletto heel.

Here’s where my mixed feelings begin to pop up. For all show creator’s Chad Hodge’s talk about how the series focuses on the Bunnies, he’s essentially making the main plot about Dalton, his current political ambitions and his past links to the mobster’s family.

But maybe I’m a hypocrite, because I actually enjoy Nick crossing paths with the mobster’s son, played by Troy Garrity, who pulls Nick back into “the family” to help find his father. The budding relationship between Nick and Maureen, however, does nothing for me.

Hodge stuffs a lot of story into the metaphorical bust of the premiere, and its not all focused on Nick. Some might say the show is overstuffed with stories, but I had no problem following the various strands, even if some were less interesting than others.

We meet several Bunnies, all of whom seem to have some sort of secret. I especially enjoyed Naturi Naughton as Bunny Brenda, who wants to become the first black centerfold. “You can’t discriminate against these babies,” she says, referring to her pushed-up breasts.

Yes, that is a reference to the girly magazine, and no, I was not offended. I guess that makes me as superficial as "The Playboy Club." And I'm OK with that.