Is it too much to ask for a show entitled The Playboy Club to be about something-- or someone-- other than the quote-unquote titular playboy? You know, perhaps the women who tucked and sucked themselves into the bunny suits, luring men in, enticing them to stay, and basically selling the brand? Apparently-- unfortunately-- for NBC, yes, that is too much to ask.
The Playboy Club does have dynamic female characters, but it chooses to allow them to fall to the side, supporting the man in the power position, no matter how incapable he may be. On one hand, it's a nice subtle homage to the way the women of the time period really did "stand by their men," even if they knew better. But that is reading more subtext within the piece than is warranted from the presentation. Eddie Cibrian in the lead male role of Nick Dalton, lawyer, former mob member, husband, ladies man, Number One keyholder, and all around "dude to be" in the moment, is dull, dumb, and vacant. And if those women aren't careful he will drag them down, too.
Amber Heard, as the new cigarette bunny Maureen, is absolutely enticing and intriguing, but it as almost if the show is as intimated by that as the men of her time would have been. The original pilot saw her defending herself against violent unwanted advances from a customer in the club who turned out to be a mob boss, but the retooled version that is airing on NBC has a man-- Nick-- coming to her rescue instead. There are moments later when she shows promises-- fear flickers out of her eyes when faced with other members of the mob as she regains composure and realizes she can have the upper hand, assuming she is willing to use her sexuality to her advantage, of course, but those moments are quite thin-- and few and far between.
The same can be said for the new seemingly complex Bunny Mother (the equally fascinating Laura Benanti), a woman who society is desperately trying to cast down and out in favor of the younger crop of girls like Maureen. But she won't go quietly into the night. In fact, she does all she can not to avoid confrontation-- and to make her mark to actually help those who will come after her. But thus far the dynamic between the two is competitive, when really they should be banding together to take down guys like Nick, not by force, and not because he's an inherently bad guy but because for too long guys like him got all the praise and props just because they had a Y chromosome, while women of actual substance were tossed off and not taken seriously.
It's hard to tell at this stage of the game where the fault lies. In truth, characters within a pilot, especially when there are as many players as within The Playboy Club, are hard to flesh out in such a small amount of time. It is expected and understood that some supporting players have to evolve over time, but these characters show so much promise and instead the show chooses to puff up the lackluster character of Nick.
With a different actor in the role, Nick could be charming; he could be captivating; he could have me eating out of the palm of his hand the way all of the other characters seem to be. But Cibrian, with his tiny dead eyes just isn't cutting it. And part of the reason we resent that so much of the show is centered on him is the fact that he just can't live up to the hype of the time period. It was the swinging sixties, after all; each and every scene should be alive, exploding off the screen, with excitement of change in the air. But every time he comes on (and that is about seventy percent of the pilot because NBC is just so desperate to make this man a star), he sucks the air out of the room. On-screen and off, in the viewing room.
A great actor can take a small (or thin) part and create someone you still can't take your eyes off of. Suddenly a character who would be normally considered a fourth or fifth lead might become a "breakout." I have all of the faith in the world that the cast assembled here can be those actors/characters, but the fear is that they won't even be in the script enough to make great strides. And what makes it so much worse is that, unfortunately, that is not an uncommon fear for fall television this year.
Though Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story does not separate the male characters from the females as the masters and submissives, so to speak, it still feels uneven simply because Murphy is limited as a writer in being able to express situations through the male gaze. It shouldn't be that way, but it is. And in this particular case, where he is trying to mix and mingle genres, what we end up with is a frenetically paced pilot that works harder to shock you with visual images of creepy dead kids, creature hands, and a spirit in head-to-toe latex than to offer you glimpses into who these people really are.
The imagery alone seems to beckon the boys hither, not in the same way prancing scantily clad women in front of them will, but still. Reaching for the cheap tricks: the overtly loud screeching or the flashing images of fire or blood or death and mayhem of other kinds doesn't ask that you think too hard, if at all. It's all adrenaline and all action. Even when we're about to get into something real between the Harmons-- whose relationship has been on ice ever since the wife (the "can affect you with just one shift of the eyes" Connie Britton) caught her husband (the boyish Dylan McDermott) cheating-- the scene shifts and the discussion they have been screaming out each other gets thrown out the window as they just start having raw, guttural sex. It may be an "in the moment" move, but it just feels like the show's attempt to shut up a woman it considers to be nagging. And Britton-- and the audience-- deserves so much better than that.
There are forces to be reckoned with within this story, but perhaps the biggest and baddest of all really are the women. And perhaps that is why they are used so sparingly right now; Murphy can't handle them, so he fears his audience will be just as ill-equipped. Britton and Jessica Lange have just the right kind of intense antagonism in their short scenes opposite each other that they show extreme promise, but it appears American Horror Story can't see that with all of the noise around them. Instead the show chooses to focus on McDermott-- his needs, his struggles, his changes, and of course, his temptations. He is pushed forward to the center simply because the house only seems to affect the men who come within its walls. That is a plot point indicative of the time period that American Horror Story tries to evoke, that it pays homage to and is based on. And that would be fine, even for a modern telling, if the way the women were brought into it weren't simply to be used as objects, sometimes literally tossed around, and then discarded "over there" to deal with their own problems...off-screen.
Though there are glimmers of hope-- especially with the history that Lange's character has with the house (our theory is she is actually selling her neighbors' souls to the house for the low, low price of eternal youth)-- there are also some of television biggest offending moments within, as well. Alexandra Breckenridge's "Young Moira" is only there to be objectified-- by the one character who sees her and the audience by extension. She is not a woman of substance; she's barely a person at all-- just a pair of legs designed to make Ben (McDermott) "fall." It's hard not to get angry when you see her on-screen-- because her pornstar drop-out dead face is devoting screen time to salaciousness when we could have a shot at actual plot, actual development. But the stereotypically male audience who this is made for stereotypically don't care about such matters.
The only reason the audience sees Breckenridge at all is because we are looking at things through Ben's eyes anyway, and if we're going to watch this story unfold through his eyes-- a man who is slowly going mad due to external forces beyond his control-- well, then, we can't imagine what kind of a skewed, probably partially misogynistic view we're going to get of these women, when they're not simply pushed to the back burner.
Britton didn't want to resume her role of Tami Taylor in Friday Night Lights when it moved to the small screen because she remembered how little there was for her to do other than sit on the sidelines and cheer on her husband in the film. Of course, even that little bit, she did well, but the point is more than valid: an actor can layer a performance with subtext-- but not if there is no text at all on the page. An actor is there to enhance the words, to bring them to life, to shape a character and give them qualities the audience can see in themselves. But it should not be an actor's job to create something from nothing, and if American Horror Story continues at the pace at which it is currently, everyone is just going to disappear into the abyss as walking, talking props in the whore house that is the horror genre.