You can say you're watching "The Playboy Club" ''for the articles" — or, in the TV-series equivalent of that now legendary excuse, for the storylines.
Like the magazine that founded Hugh Hefner's now yellowing empire, this new NBC series is selling sex, or at least a network-television take on an "upscale" men's-magazine version of clean-scrubbed and cottontailed 1960s sex. Shot on a Southwest Side soundstage, it paints Chicago in that decade as a town not only toddlin' but tumescent, even as it mostly keeps its pants on.
But wrapped around the premiere episode's lone bathroom assignation, its pajama party back at the Playboy Mansion and its rolling foothills of gently heaving cleavage are enough storylines to stuff a magazine as fat as Playboy used to be, back in its pre-Internet, pre-DVD heyday.
The episode is a plot riot, bidding almost desperately to find some narrative thread that will keep your attention. It's unfortunate that NBC sent out only the first hour of this series, but with so much set in motion so quickly it's hard to imagine it calming down.
Leading man Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian) isn't just a hotshot lawyer about to run for "state attorney," as a radio announcer mis-phrases it, he also was raised among — and is now trying to reject — Chicago's top mobsters. Those mobsters are men who, like Dalton, can't resist spending evenings in the company of women known and dressed as "Bunnies."
Ingenue Bunny Maureen (Amber Heard) is more than just a Fort Wayne innocent, fresh to the city from Indiana. She, the episode hints, has her own past secrets, plus a brand-new one that comes when she tests whether the phrase "stiletto heel" is meant literally.
Veteran Bunny Carol-Lynne (Laura Benanti) wants to sing, to hold on to Nick and to be Bunny Mother to the other girls. In a curious choice for a series that purports to offer strong female leads, only the male characters get last names, even in NBC's promotional material.
Also vying for screen time are a society of the secretly gay, a striving club manager and a bartender who makes himself instantly tiresome by not being able to handle other men hitting on his Bunny girlfriend.
There are even occasional moments of voiceover from Hefner himself, sounding like an overwrought tour-bus driver: "The steaming, corrupt, crime-filled Windy City may have been all of those things, but I built a place in the toddling town where everything was perfect," he says, and you wait for a mention of deep-dish pizza or the Cubs.
Executive producer Chad Hodge ("Runaway") puts all of this exposition right up front, underlined, amplified and spotlit, in the manner of the "night soap" he has said he wants to make. But, you wonder, why shoot for a target so low — the phrase brings to mind such 1980s artifacts as "Falcon Crest" and "Dallas" — when television today is rich with dramatic series that not only offer a more adult view of sexuality but a more subtle, sophisticated style of storytelling?
"The Playboy Club," of course, isn't just some magical inspiration to revisit a moment of comparative cultural innocence and potential retro cool. Like "Pan Am," ABC's new globetrotting-stewardesses period piece, it is being made because of the critical success of "Mad Men," Matthew Weiner's razor-sharp exploration of the 1960s advertising world on AMC.
But "Mad Men" plays out with a literary attention to detail, physical and psychological. "The Playboy Club," if it is any kind of book, feels more like an airport novel. It is, perhaps, an offering for people who like the spiral staircases and besuited men of the era but who don't have the patience for "Mad Men's" slow unfolding.
As played by Cibrian, known for being Mr. LeAnn Rimes and for "Third Watch," Dalton is the lite version of Jon Hamm's Don Draper. He, too, will hold your gaze and a cocktail glass at once, handsomely, but he doesn't convey the same feeling of depth. The series tells us he's done some good civil-rights lawyering, and that he likes his Bunnies "smart," but what we see is, indeed, a playboy.
The women are, as a whole, the more appealing characters. Heard and Broadway veteran Benanti, especially, manage to outshine some stock dialogue, even to make you forget occasionally the outfits they are stuffed into.
Meanwhile, while one episode isn't enough to tell how well the show will use the city it is shooting in, the Chicago River-looking spot chosen to dump a body is a positive sign. Less reassuring is the sense you get that, in order to deliver such standard-issue nightclub intrigue as dead bodies and jealous lovers, this show will mostly sidestep the fascinating story of the empire Hefner created here.
Playboy, once upon a time, turned a leering worldview into the mark of sophistication, or at least it tried to convince its heavy users that such was the case. Observers encountering a vehicle adorned with Playboy-logo mudflaps might have thought otherwise.
But the clubs, at least, put men in a position where they had to get dressed up and talk face-to-face to women, and where women, instead of being perpetually frozen in a moment of carefully posed undress, could talk back, albeit with a puffy tail affixed to their backsides.
It's too bad that what they have to say, as this series gets underway — that what this series itself has to say — doesn't prove any more surprising than the answers the magazine's models give on the monthly questionnaire known as the "Playmate Data Sheet." Like mean people or rainy Saturdays, "The Playboy Club" is, alas, a turn-off.