Of the new TV series announced for fall, none has caught the audience's eye (while raising eyebrows) like "The Playboy Club."
Set in the early 1960s, this NBC drama stands out as a rare TV period piece that is all the more notable for being joined on the fall schedule by another early '60s melodrama, ABC's "Pan Am," which focuses on frisky stewardesses in the dawning jet age.
Both shows will be roughly contemporaneous with AMC's "Mad Men," which reigns as one of a bare handful of successful period dramas (other than Westerns) in the annals of network TV, and without whose success neither "Pam Am" nor "The Playboy Club" is imaginable.
But while "Mad Men" unfolds in New York, "The Playboy Club" takes place in Chicago at the just-opened nightspot meant to build on the seductive appeal of Playboy magazine, then less than a decade old. In the vision of Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, the club would be a swinging hideaway for Playboy fans, bringing the magazine to life.
To judge from the first episode (which airs Sept. 19), "The Playboy Club" is a zesty cocktail. There's glamour, music, mystery and sin, a dash of cultural history, and, of course, the aura of sex, all airbrushed by a half-century's remove while it flaunts the Playboy legacy, still powerfully evocative even today.
"The legendary Playboy Club in Chicago is the door to all of your fantasies," as the series description reminds you, "and the key is the most sought-after status symbol of its kind." In this pleasure palace, you rub shoulders with "the decade's biggest mobsters, politicos and entertainers," as well as Nick Dalton (series star Eddie Cibrian), a mysterious lawyer with ties to the underworld and a well-earned reputation as a — what else? — dashing playboy.
But according to Chad Hodge, who created the series, "The Playboy Club" is mostly about the bunnies — the buxom cotton-tailed, satin-corseted, look-but-don't-touch waitresses who gave the club its mythical allure.
"Through them," says Hodge, "we get everything else — soap, crime, sex, relationships and the cultural relevance of what's going on, not only in regards to Playboy but the world."
History tells us that Chicago's Playboy Club (the first of almost two dozen by the mid-1970s) opened in February 1960. A membership key set back status seekers $25 while cocktails cost a pricey $1.50 — though who was complaining, when it was any one of some 85 beautiful bunnies serving them?
"Some have been models and airline hostesses," reported a Chicago newspaper in 1962, "but most of them are former office girls. A few are working their way through college, one through medical school."
"They were cocktail waitresses who could further their own lives," says Hodge. "Our show explores who they are, where they're going and what they want."
Says Laura Lancaster, NBC's head of drama development, "At its core, 'The Playboy Club' is really a soap — a fun soap in a really cool, swanky setting."
But what initially caught her fancy when the show was pitched was its focus on the women.
"That was such an interesting time for women," Lancaster says, "and I thought there were probably great conversations to be had between the bunnies that would resonate with us today."
The Playboy Club, she says, "really was empowering to women as an environment that encouraged more open-mindedness — and I don't mean about sex, but in terms of their ability to earn a great living. The doors of opportunity were open to them."
When Hodge came on board, he says he was handed a few basics: "It's Playboy. It's the early '60s. It's the first club. It's the bunnies. It's Chicago. That's what they gave me. I came up with everything else."
Hodge, whose credits include CW's short-lived 2006 drama "Runaway," starring Donnie Wahlberg, is just 34. "I'm not an original key-holder," he laughs.
But he set to work researching the subject. He pored over many of the 2,400 scrapbooks kept by full-time Playboy archivists who document the life, career and loves of Hugh Hefner.
"That's where it started," Hodge says. "And then talking to Hef and to former bunnies."
A production partner in "The Playboy Club" is Alta Loma Entertainment, a division of Playboy, which lends the show a certain authority while guaranteeing it a certain sheen.
"They are actively involved in the show, but in the most helpful way imaginable," Hodge says.
With their help, he says he's respecting the pertinent facts in his storytelling. The TV version of the club looks much like the actual club, he says; the famous "bunny dip" (a leaning-back technique for the bunny to place drinks on a low table without having to bend forward and risk falling out of her costume) has been faithfully revived.
"We take some license," Hodge allows, "but I wouldn't say it's any more than with any historical fiction or biopic."
His aim, to hear him talk, is not so much to chronicle the truth but to celebrate the legend still embraced by those who were there, or wish they had been. And never mind detractors who might sneer at a job whose "liberation" was tied to a stringent Bunny Manual that covered smiling, standing, VIP exceptions to the ban on dating customers and declared "your proudest possession is your Bunny Tail. You must keep it soft and fluffy." Which the bunnies did.
Hodge marvels at "the glint that was in the eyes of those former bunnies, and in Hef's eye, when they talk about that time and those clubs. There's such a beauty to those memories. I wanted to capture that in the show. I want the show to look like that memory."
In his pilot script, Hodge has also invested the show with snappy, noirish dialogue.
Carol-Lynne, the grande dame of bunnies (played by Laura Benanti) is scolded by Billy (David Krumholtz), the club's general manager, for using the executive bathroom. She coolly informs him that the bunny dressing room's loo is out of order, then adds pointedly, "I picked out the wallpaper for that bathroom, Billy, long before you were here telling me where to tinkle."
Womanizer Nick has a special thing for Carol-Lynne, but Billy frowns on this relationship.
"I don't know why you need her," he tells Nick. "She's ..."
"Smart," Nick cuts in.
"Smart! Who needs smart?" scoffs Billy. "You're the only man I know who puts his hand up a girl's skirt looking for a dictionary."
Most of the first episode of "The Playboy Club" takes place at the club or at the majestic Playboy Mansion. That's fitting. From Hef's first conception of the Playboy lifestyle, it was meant to be enjoyed in hip, playmate-accessorized seclusion. In exclusive places where people clamored to gain entrance. In spaces where Hef, at least spiritually, always presided, even when he was nowhere to be seen.
No surprise, Hugh Hefner is an overriding presence on the series. But he is rarely on hand. An actor playing Hef is glimpsed in one scene at the mansion. And the genuine, 85-year-old article is heard in an opening voiceover setting the stage for the nightspot "where everything was perfect, where life was magic, where the rules were broken and fantasies became reality for everyone who walked through the door."
"It wasn't the '50s anymore," Hef notes.
When pressed, Hodge pinpoints "The Playboy Club" as taking place in 1961. By that time, there were more than 100,000 key-holders to the club, which already was the purveyor of more food and drink than any other restaurant or club in all Chicago.
That's a long-ago era that "The Playboy Club" will resurrect when it resumes production in Chicago late this month. The club was shuttered a quarter-century ago. The designated Playboy mansion is now in Los Angeles, while Hef's former digs on Chicago's Gold Coast have been chopped up and sold as luxury condominiums.
For better or worse, it isn't the '60s anymore for Playboy. That is, except on "The Playboy Club" starting this fall. But viewers must mix their own drinks.
NBC is owned by NBC Universal.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier