Why The Playboy Club Is Dead in One Episode

Posted: September 20, 2011 in Fiction, Reviews

NBC promoted The Playboy Club as if they had a winner. What’s not to like? Sexy women in naughty outfits, a murder, the cool retro 60s, lots of double-crosses…

I’ll tell you what’s not to like: the writing. But as writers, we can learn as much from a train wreck as we can from a masterpiece. So let’s deconstruct The Playboy Club‘s problems.

Avoid Cliches Like the Plague

The dialog showed that the writers don’t know the difference between convention and cliche. Conventions are the things that the genre requires in order to be that genre. Romances need star-crossed lovers, noir needs a guy with a sordid past (and the story needs a downbeat ending), a fantasy quest needs a protagonist with room to grow and a “golden fleece” type of goal. These are conventions because a romance without lovers is not a romance; a mystery where the guy has no sordid past is not noir; and so on. Fans of those genres turn to them because they like the conventions. An action fan rarely explodes, “Not another car chase!”

Cliches, on the other hand, arise from executing the conventions exactly the same way loads of predecessors have done it. For instance, The Playboy Club follows a seeming naif named Maureen who runs afoul of The Mob, and this exact conversation occurs:

Maureen: “I’m not going anywhere. I can take care of myself.”
Studly guy: “You have no idea what these people are capable of!”

These lines have occurred, word for word, in countless previous movies. It’s just one of many examples where Playboy Club failed to bring a spark of newness to the screen.

“Who Cares?” Is Not Rhetorical

The unforgivable sin that is going to get Playboy Club canceled before the season ends is that the writers gave us no one to root for.

Perhaps the writers thought they had offered a bonanza of fascinating viewing, because in the first episode, every character either has a disgraceful secret, or implies one for future episodes. But if everyone is a backstabber, a traitor, compromised, or a tattle-tale, why would we care about any of them? Who do we relate to?

We’re intended to care about Maureen. The problem is that as written, as directed, as acted, she is stupid.  Annoyingly stupid. An accident in the first few minutes plunges her into deadly trouble if anyone finds out what she unintentionally did. (So far, so good.) Maureen then makes two choices: first, when given the chance to flee, she refuses to (even though she’s new in town!). Second, although her job as a Playboy bunny is to enliven the party, she mopes dramatically everywhere she goes, telegraphing her trouble. When conversation gets near her “secret topic,” she looks desperate and holds her breath. Basically, she is as good at keeping secrets and masking her expression as the average toddler. Even more taxing for our suspension of disbelief: nobody notices.

What I Learned at the Playboy Mansion

What can we learn from a drama that cost millions to produce, yet can hardly be tolerated for one episode? Well, lots, but two BIG take-aways for me were:

1) Your protagonist has to be proactive and make reasonable choices. Maureen not only does nothing to solve her problem; she does less than the average person would. A much better story would have her immediately attempt to flee town, then find a compelling reason why she can’t. Or, she would decide to stay because she has already demonstrated that she is a master of deception. Whatever your choice, the last thing you want is for your viewpoint character to stand around letting things happen to her, having no particular response.

2) Commercial fiction requires someone to root for. Karl Iglesias, in his superb Writing for Emotional Impact, provides a priceless list of 51 traits that give a character “rooting power.” I won’t list them all, but they fall into three categories: victims (characters we feel sorry for), Samaritans (characters with humanistic qualities), and idols (characters with desirable qualities). We get on the side of someone who is being unfairly laughed at, snubbed, or passed over. We root for someone who helps the less fortunate, defends the defenseless, or changes her heart and forgives. We care about characters of courage, charisma, awesome skill, or winsome playfulness.

I predict a short life for The Playboy Club. It debuted to about three million viewers, which is a smaller audience than some cable shows command (and a distant third place behind its network rivals). To avoid a similar lack of attention for your own work, bring your own unique inventiveness to the conventions of your genre, let your characters drive the action, and give us a reason to care. C’mon, any dumb bunny can do it.

  1. […] slightly surprised at how fast my prediction about The Playboy Club proved true. At the end of this article, one of the actresses on the show […]

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