A lot of the Playboy Club’s problems, I think, stem from a lack of self-awareness, of the pilot’s unwillingness to explore the uncomfortable assumptions behind the things the characters are saying to each other that should be the essence of a show like this that’s all about a moment when one set of behaviors became not okay and another set of behaviors and identities fought ferociously for their right to exist. When some young Club patrons learn, to their surprise, that they can’t sleep with one of the Bunnies for the grand total of $1.50, the Bunny in question explains to them, “And I’m not a waitress, either. I’m Bunny Janie.” The interesting bit here is that self-delusion, the idea that she’s achieved some separate category, and what it takes to convince herself of that. When Hugh Hefner says in the voiceover that opens the show, “it was a place where anything could happen to anybody. Or any Bunny,” that’s true, only if bad things can happen as well as good things.
The other challenge the show faces, and I’m curious to see how Pan Am will handle this, is how to create an atmosphere of pervasive sexism and racism without making the characters who say sexist and racist things seem totally revolting to an audience who will refuse to identify with them in ways that will allow the show to actually explore issues. When one Bunny jauntily declares that if she overeats at the Mansion’s breakfast buffet, “I just stick my finger down my throat and throw ‘em up. It’s this new diet I heard about,” it’s alienating rather than creating affinity between an audience who knows the cost of bulimia and a character who’s embracing it as a trend.
To the show’s credit, it doesn’t seem particularly invested in the idea that the guys who were members of the club were swingin’, liberated dudes. Whether it’s a mob boss assaulting main Bunny Maureen in a supply room or the tasteless wannabe-gentlemen who are soliciting sex from Janie, The Playboy Club is clear about the possibilities of sexual harassment that came with the job even if no one named them as such. And even Nick, theoretically the king of the place, is a fraud. “It’s your fuel,” Carol-Lynne tells him dismissively of his need to work the room. “It’s what you need to propel your meteoric rise from Bianchi henchboy to best man ever.”
But the real, wonderful surprise comes at the end of the show. All hour long, we’ve been hearing Alice talk about her husband Max and the challenges of being married while working at the Playboy Club where, as she explains in a harbinger of conflicts and anxieties and pay gap debates to come, “I make more money than my father!” And in one scene it seems like they’re setting themselves up to rob somebody. Alice suggests that in other states, they’d be considered criminals. But it turns out that their much-discussed marriage is a sham. In reality, their marriage is a sham. Both of them are gay, and they’re hustling to come up with enough money to hire someone to run Chicago’s first chapter of the Mattachine Society full-time.
I have to admit I teared up when I realized what was going on, when Max, Alice’s husband, tentatively told a room full of nervous people that “There is power in this room. And though our dreams are assuredly far away, tonight we can be who we really are.” There’s no question that lots of gay people led lives of quiet desperation in the 1960s, like Mad Men‘s Sal Romano. But gay people were also organizing in those years, building groups like Mattachine (founded in Los Angeles, though the Society of Human Rights was founded in Chicago in 1924) that enabled people like Frank Kameny to step forward in 1961 and fight against the federal government that dismissed him from his work because he was gay. It shows some real intelligence and commitment to equality to get that this is a story that needs telling.