Murder is just one of the secrets these Bunnies are hiding

By Mandi Bierly
Updated September 20, 2011 at 06:00 AM EDT
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Matt Dinerstein/NBC

The Playboy Club

S1 E1
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  • TV Show
network
  • NBC

My colleague Ken Tucker has referred to The Playboy Club as “the least sexy new show of the fall season,” and I’ll give him that. We’ve seen Beyoncé, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Miley Cyrus wear as little onstage as these Bunnies, so the heaving bosoms blend into the background. The men in the club are, so far, portrayed as chauvinists who either want to buy a Bunny for the night or to marry her and knock her up so no one else will want what is his. By the end of the hour, we got a hint of longing with a new rule that Bunnies can’t date keyholders and a staged back alley kiss between Cigarette Bunny Maureen (Amber Heard) and lawyer Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian), the knight in shining ’60s-wear who helped her cover up her murder (in self-defense) of his former mob boss.

But the reason I actually liked The Playboy Club more than I thought I would is because it isn’t just trying to sell sex. It’s a story about secrets, and how even women wearing next to nothing can be hiding something. At least that’s the direction I hope we’re headed.

First thing you should know: Don’t get attached to Hugh Hefner’s narration. It won’t continue beyond the pilot. I’m actually fine with that. I want to watch this show and not be burdened debating how I feel about the politics of Playboy in real life. Not hearing Hef’s voice will let me off the hook. This is make-believe. I can like or dislike a plot point on the show and not have it be a statement for all of womankind. If you want to take a show that stars Eddie Cibrian that seriously, feel free. I just can’t.

Second thing you should know: I don’t have a problem with Eddie Cibrian. Some people still haven’t forgiven him for falling in love with LeAnn Rimes on the set of Lifetime’s Nora Roberts adaptation Northern Lights, and to them, I say, “reread this sentence.” The important issue here is whether this is the show that will finally make Cibrian the TV star the people in Hollywood who keep casting him clearly think he is. To me, he’s actually perfect for the role of a slick, sought-after climber who’s supposed to be unreadable. He’s Ken doll handsome and Ken doll bland. I could not tell you one thing about Eddie Cibrian’s personality, which means I don’t have any preconceived notions about whether he’s a charmer or a cad coloring the character. Nick Dalton is a mystery, and I like looking at Cibrian enough to hang around until I figure him out.

So let’s dig in. You can tell by the opening shot — a superhero movie pan down from colorless Chicago skyscrapers to the Mondrian-esque facade of the Playboy Club — that you step inside that door and out of reality. There’s Carol-Lynne (Laura Benanti), the first-ever Bunny, performing onstage as Cigarette Bunny Maureen put down her tray and danced with a man who got a little too handsy. She gracefully passed herself off to the next gentleman (and the next one), but she offended the first guy enough that he followed her to the backroom when she went to get Nick his brand of cigarettes. Luckily, when she didn’t return in a timely manner, Nick went looking for her and stopped the man from raping her as Carol-Lynne sang “Sha Boom.” This life is not a dream, it turns out: The guy escaped Nick’s hold, and instead of bolting, charged back at Maureen, who, in the best use of a stiletto since Single White Female, kicked him in the neck with her heel.

After that “You got a lot of opinions for a girl” line, he deserved to die. He collapsed, and Maureen told Nick she’d call the cops. He stopped her: The man she killed was known as respectable married businessman Clyde Hill, but he’s actually mob boss Bruno Bianchi. If they both wanted to live, they weren’t telling anyone what had happened. She wiped the blood on her Bunny costume — how did she explain that, exactly? — and stuck his key to the club down her cleavage (instead of handing it to Nick like she would have done if she was as smart as we’re supposed to think she is). They put the body in the trunk of his car, then dumped it in the water.

NEXT: This week’s Showgirls reference

Staying with Self-Defense Bunny and Nick, he took her back to his open, wood-paneled bachelor pad and she took a shower, which is when she realized she’d dropped the key. She came downstairs in one of Nick’s white shirts and he’d poured her a drink. She was smart enough not to drink in a strange man’s place. He said he wouldn’t hurt her. “I’ve heard those words before,” she said, sounding wise beyond her years, like Nomi in Showgirls. He’s a lawyer who’ll soon be running for state’s attorney, so she has nothing to worry about, he assured her. Oh, how cute that he thought that meant something! He handed her the wad of cash he’d taken from the mob boss and told her it was the least Bianchi could do since she’d have to relocate now. But she told him she wasn’t leaving. She’d been on her own since the day she was born and no one would stop her from living her dream of living on Hugh Hefner’s dime?. Suspicious Carol-Lynne, who’d heard Nick and Maureen both left during her set, showed up and noticed Maureen’s shoes and Bunny costume mid-kiss. She went upstairs to get her things and found Maureen hiding in the closet. It’s not what it looks like, they said, but Carol-Lynne was out of there.

Maureen went home to the Playboy Mansion, where roommate Brenda (Naturi Naughton) had some exposition to do before bedtime. We learned that Nick may or may not have a large penis, and depending on who you talk to, he’s either brilliant or a fool, a gentleman or a womanizer, and everything you want or nothing you want. The only thing we know for certain is that the Bunnies sleep with their make-up on.

The next day, Bianchi’s wife called the club and asked manager Billy Morton (David Krumholtz) if he’d been there. Nick happened to be in Billy’s office, and though everyone knows Maureen was dancing with Bianchi, she and Nick can honestly say they went home together. Nick told Billy that Carol-Lynne busted him, and Billy wondered why Nick wanted to be with the Aging Bunny. She’s smart, Nick said. (Good answer.) “Who needs smart? You’re the only man I know puts his hand up a girl’s skirt looking for a dictionary,” Billy said. You suck, Billy. Is this a Pretty in Pink situation where Billy doesn’t like Carol-Lynne because he wanted her at some point and she shot him down? If so, Billy got his revenge when he fired Carol-Lynne for looking through his Bunny files. But she ended up back on top when Hef called Billy to inform him that he’d made Carol-Lynne the Bunny Mother. (Do you think she waited outside his office until she heard the call come in? People on this show have such great timing.)

NEXT: The sexual tension builds.

As Bunny Mother, Carol-Lynne would now school the girls on how to be a living breathing fantasy — no gum or wedding rings allowed. The costumes were altered (“Higher hips, higher tips”) and a new rule was instituted: Bunnies can’t date keyholders or slip into the back with them. Maureen thought that meant Carol-Lynne knew what had happened with her and Bianchi, and honestly, why would that be a bad thing? Carol-Lynne was clearly in love with Nick. She wouldn’t want one of her Bunnies to get RAPED. Yes, it’d be bad for her health to know, but why couldn’t Nick trust her?

Anyway, Maureen expressed her concern to Nick, and Nick said Carol-Lynne was just jealous. All Maureen had to do was act as though she hadn’t murdered a man last night. She’d love to pretend yesterday didn’t happen. He offered to get her a glass of water to calm down. She said she hated water. So did he, he said. OHMYGOD, THEY HAVE SOMETHING IN COMMON. SEXUAL TENSION! Okay, that was actually a metaphor for the two of them not quitting when the going gets tough. I got it. When Ike and Tina Turner took the stage, Maureen joined the Bunnies in an impromptu dance number. Life was back to normal.

Nick eventually tried to make up with Carol-Lynne by giving her a pair of expensive earrings. Carol-Lynne is my favorite character on the show. She put him in his place. She knows why he comes to the club every night: If he wants to climb from Bianchi family henchman to state’s attorney, he needs every man to want to be him and every girl to say, “Pick me.” That attention fuels him, and he can’t let himself believe that any woman could walk away from him. Well, she’s a one-strike lady, baby, and he’s out.

Carol-Lynne asked to see Maureen in the back. I believe Carol-Lynne wants to make Maureen the best Bunny she can be and stop Billy from sending girls out onto the floor without a week of training. She wants Maureen to believe she’s her friend — not because you keep your enemies close (I don’t think Carol-Lynne is threatened by Maureen), but because she really does want to look out for these girls. She said it: Nick’s friends aren’t people you want to know.

Bianchi’s current henchmen knew Maureen had danced with their boss, and one of them cornered her. She played it off beautifully, saying she went home with Nick, but maybe if this guy took his hand off his knife and waited a few days before asking her out, she might consider going home with him. Men are so stupid. He bought it and let her walk. She went out to the alley, which is where Nick was told Bianchi’s son would pick him up for a chat. Maureen can’t leave town now, Nick said, or they’d know she had something to do with Bruno’s death and come after her. She told Nick she’d said she’d gone home with him. If that’s their story, Nick reasoned, then he better kiss her goodbye right where Bianchi’s men could see it. “Bunnies aren’t allowed to date keyholders anymore,” she told him. “I don’t recall asking you on a date,” he said, leaning in. Okay, Ken, that was kinda hot.

“Women will be the death of you,” Bianchi’s son told Nick. How true! When the son accused Nick of wanting Bianchi dead so it’d be easier for him to win office without that skeleton, Nick insisted he wasn’t that stupid. Agreed. So Bianchi’s son wants Nick’s help finding his father. Apparently Bianchi gave Nick a family and home when he had none. Nick said he hadn’t talked to Bianchi for three years (so they just avoided each other at the Playboy Club, or is he lying and Bianchi’s son isn’t a member to know the difference?). Nick suggested his real son look for him — unless he didn’t want to find his father because it would be easier for him to assume control of the outfit with him gone. Well played, Nick. Nick got dropped off at the Playboy Mansion, where Ike and Tina were performing at an after-party that Maureen reluctantly attended in her nightgown and heels because her roommate — who hopes to be the first “Chocolate Centerfold” because you can’t discriminate against her chest — told her life is tough outside that door that says “If you don’t swing, don’t ring” in Latin. So if you have access to the party, you party. As (Fake) Tina Turner sang about wanting to be made over, and Maureen imagined herself onstage (cheesiest shot of the hour?) and shared a stare with Nick, a city worker found Bianchi’s key by the water.

NEXT: Lesbian Bunny!

As for the other Bunnies, they’ve got their own secrets. Jenna Dewan Tatum, a.k.a. Channing Tatum’s Step Up costar and wife, is Bunny Janie. At first she just seemed to be the comic relief, always passing out a Tampax when one of the other girls complained about something and explaining why she can eat tons of blueberry crepes with vanilla sauce at the Mansion party breakfast buffets (bulimia! funny!). But Janie dates bartender Max (Wes Ramsey), who took Billy’s advice on marrying your Bunny and proposed to her during bathroom sex (romantic!). She said no, and eventually, she told him she can’t marry him and she can’t tell him why. WHY? I assume because she’s already married to an abusive husband that she ran away from? Other theories?

Then there’s Bunny Alice (Leah Renee), who has a husband (Firefly‘s Sean Maher) who doesn’t like her working at the Playboy Club but can’t deny the money is good (she makes more than her father). Our first clue that Alice had more to her was when her hubby picked her up from work, looked at her $143 in tips, and said, “How long can we keep this going?” “Until I slip up,” she answered. Later, over the phone, we learned they were holding a meeting at their place. “They’re gonna think we’re criminals,” he said, hearing how much more she made by not wearing her wedding ring. “In most states, we are,” she answered. And then her husband was brought a beer by a shirtless man who told him, “Relax. No one’s gonna find out.” Turns out, they’re starting the first Chicago chapter of the secret Mattachine Society, a gay rights group. Lesbian Bunny. Intriguing! Do we think she’s legally married, or did she just wear the ring because it kept men from coming onto her and gave her an out for the mansion parties (husbands aren’t allowed)?

In the voiceover at the end, Hef said that the Bunnies were some of the only women in the world who could be anyone they wanted to be in the early ’60s. No one ever knew their last names. The moral, I guess: The men weren’t the only ones looking for a fantasy to become a reality. I suppose it’s true — you could be anyone you wanted, as long as you didn’t want to be a Door Bunny who got to wear a coat during the Chicago winter.

Your turn. What did you think of the premiere? Will you keep watching? Does knowing the Bunnies weren’t on the $1.50 menu make you feel like they were equals to their customers? And were you hoping for more shirtless Cibrian? I presume the shot of him in the towel, after he won that big Civil Rights housing case, was to show us that he had a scar over his heart — the reason he left the Bianchi family three years ago perhaps?

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The Playboy Club

Meet the employees (known as Bunnies) of the first Playboy Club in 1963 Chicago.
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