NBC President Robert Greenblatt was really committed to the new drama "The Playboy Club" just weeks ago. "What it has going for it is a recognizable brand that's automatically going to draw attention to it, good or bad," he said. "It's the right kind of thing for us to try." They tried it. Three episodes later, NBC made it the first canceled series of the season. Trains have rarely wrecked as ingloriously as this one.
By the third episode, NBC could barely muster 3 million viewers, while ABC ("Castle") and CBS ("Hawaii Five-O") were both over 11 million. This show had flop sweat all over it. Entertainment Weekly wrote after the cancellation announcement that "The move is no surprise and, indeed, was expected months before the show premiered." So why on Earth did NBC work so hard to promote this show and its pornographic brand?
They weren't the only promoters. The Playboy porn empire aggressively swung for the fences, pushing the NBC show everywhere, including the cover of its October issue. For which they charged just 60 cents at the porn stand. (NBC was promoted right above "The Gentleman's Guide to Having an Affair.")
Playboy chieftain Hugh Hefner tweeted his spin: "I'm sorry NBC's 'The Playboy Club' didn't find its audience. It should have been on cable, aimed at a more adult audience." That's a weird analysis, since putting it on cable would have made the comparisons to AMC's sixties drama "Mad Men" even more intense. It's also disingenuous. NBC most deliberately wanted to bring all the shock and awe to higher-profile broadcast TV. On cable, it wouldn't have lasted two hours.
TV critics were pretty brutal with NBC. Previewing the season debut, Time's James Poniewozik presciently wrote, "I suspect that using the actual Playboy brand is the original sin of a show based in a theoretically strong premise, from which by definition it can't recover."
Poniewozik found Hefner's cameo on the show's first episode especially vomit inducing. He shared his personal notes about his reaction. Hefner's voice-over cooed: "It was the early '60s, and the bunnies were some of the only women in the world who could be anyone they wanted to be." Poniewozik reacted "Barf". Then Hefner said, "So come on in. You can be anyone you want to be. But like it says on the door, if you don't swing -- don't ring." Poniewozik's note to himself: "Barf, Barf, Barf."
For his part, Hefner immediately went back to work promoting his massive ego (and his accompanying 4,000-plus scrapbooks celebrating himself) around Hollywood. "There is renewed studio interest in a major motion picture on my life and the start of the Sexual Revolution," he tweeted.
"Playboy Club" anything-goes defenders insisted the show wasn't really that explicit or offensive. But NBC made actors sign a nudity clause before filming. "Nudity as defined above and/or simulated sex acts may be required in connection with player's services in the pilot and/or series," according to Variety. Sexual "liberation" was clearly on the agenda.
One of the final scenes of the first episode featured two married characters - in a "lavender marriage," hiding each other's homosexuality. They were running a meeting of the Chicago chapter of the radical-left Mattachine Society, an early gay rights group. The male actor in that pairing, Sean Maher, came out of the closet in the real world at the same time.
Amber Heard, the female lead in "The Playboy Club," was also openly gay, and as the show collapsed, she was starring in the New York fashion magazine Vs. in racy black-and-white photos that promised "some edgy girl-on-girl action with a sado-masochistic theme." Who knows what would have been cooked up for NBC in the months to come?
Before the third and final episode, cast member David Krumholtz lashed out on Twitter at the Parents Television Council, the leading opponent of the show, for threatening his paycheck. He attacked the PTC on Twitter for "randomly" choosing the Playboy show, and then claimed Playboy is less offensive than the Mormons and Catholics, who have "a long history of degrading women."
When someone asked how Catholics degrade women, he snapped back "My bad. I should have said little children instead of women." (He later apologized.)
The show's cancellation is a victory for foes of pornified TV shows. But the push-the-envelope instincts of network executives like Greenblatt do not inspire much comfort. For those in love with trying the edgy shows all over prime time, there's always a new low around the corner. There's no telling what will be the right kind of thing for them to try next.