NBC cancels “The Playboy Club,” one of TV’s most progressive gay shows

The Playboy Club had a lot working against it before it even aired its premiere episode. The NBC show about the original Playboy Club in early 1960s Chicago was accused of being anti-feminist and nostalgic for a time when women were pieces of scenery while men paid to look (and sometimes touch). Even its stars, like Amber Heard, sticking up for their smart and self-aware characters couldn’t prove to skeptics that they felt empowered in their bunny tails (their claims even offended Gloria Steinem).

In many ways, I knew this day would come. And I dreaded it. After three poorly rated episodes of The Playboy Club, NBC has given it the ax.

I always had a glimmer of hope for the show because it had star power. It had the great city of Chicago as its backdrop (Full disclosure: I’m biased.) It had the mob, the music, the beautiful women. So why didn’t it work? I don’t think it was the controversy, started by the Parents’ Television Council. In fact, I don’t think it was racy enough for people. There wasn’t any sex; there wasn’t nudity. I’ve seen more skin on Baywatch than on The Playboy Club. It was more political than sexual, and that’s not what people come to expect from the Playboy brand. That’s probably why I liked it.

The saddest part about the cancellation is the loss of Brenda, the black Bunny and Alice, the lesbian Bunny. Both characters were two of the most interesting women on network TV, illustrating the sorely needed diversity which was accompanied by a weekly history lesson. (Edutainment!) When I spoke with Naturi Naughton (Brenda) at the Television Critics Association in August, she said we’d get to see aspects of the Civil Rights Movement through Brenda’s storyline, much like we see the secret gay history through Alice’s. And in only three episodes, we’d only just begun to glimpse these parts of the show. Now we’ll never have the chance.

The Playboy Club was executive produced by out gay writer/producer Chad Hodge, who recently told our Playboy Club recapper Mia Jones what he had in store for Alice and why the gay storyline was included in the show.

I thought, well how great would it be if she were married to a gay man and they were members of The Mattachine Society Chicago chapter? And we can sort of tell the story of that. So it really wasn’t politically motivated at all, it was pretty much out of her character but I thought it would be a great opportunity to show people what it’s like to be gay, then or now, and that this kind of relationship — you know for me, Alice and Sean have a relationship with some of the best chemistry on the show. That relationship and that friendship. And I really love them. So we can tell gay history pre-Stonewall that people don’t necessarily know about.

You know, that there was this completely underground counter-culture, political, social movement that people that they were alone and found each other. And they had to meet in basements and houses at four in the morning to figure out their voice and how to be heard and get rights. And so, hopefully people learn a bit about gay history but more importantly to me, learn from Alice and Sean what it’s like to be gay and how many hurdles and struggles there can be. And also how great it is too. So that’s why I wanted to tell that story.

Hodge added:

Starting (this) week you’ll see a new person come into Alice’s life and you’ll see how Sean gets himself into Nick’s life, which you kind of saw in the last episode.

And Sean Maher is such a good actor. So he is going to become Nick’s campaign advisor and he gets all wrapped up in Nick’s life. And Nick has no idea, he just thinks Sean is Alice’s husband. So it all plays out, it’s really interesting seeing it move forward. And the relationship that Alice gets into happens very quickly.

Spoilers ahead.

And if you saw last night’s episode, you know that Alice was flirting with Francis Dunhill, a closeted woman whose father is rich and wants her to be with a powerful, political man. Alice’s husband sets Frances up in a fake relationship with Nick Dalton — and the plot thickens!

Unfortunately we’ll have to unfold that plot in our own minds (or maybe on Hulu, where the remaining three episodes that have already been shot will be released in the near future)Despite its major plotline not being as exciting as its subplots, it’s disappointing to know we could have expected more of the good stuff because others might have expected more T&A than they were given.

What might be even more frustrating to me is the full-season pick-ups of shows like Whitney and New Girl. We were lucky enough to be saturated with TV-by-and-starring strong women this fall and The Playboy Club had much more interesting characters than the romantic comedy-lite sitcoms that NBC and Fox, respectively, believe in. At least New Girl has a viewership to warrant its pick-up; Whitney hasn’t been a hit at all. And as much as I wanted to like New Girl, I just don’t. (Sorry, Zooey Deschanel.)

But I did like aspects of The Playboy Club and I will be sad to see it replaced by Whitney re-runs while shows like Two and a Half Men remain on air for a decade. Perhaps I should have expected this in a world where The Chicago Code gets cancelled and Arrested Development needs 10 years to find its footing.

RIP the very progressive Playboy Club.