Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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Jazz star Gloria Lynne has passed away just weeks before her 82nd birthday. The singer died after suffering a heart attack at Columbus Rehabilitation Center in Newark, New Jersey on Tuesday (15Oct13). She was set to celebrate her birthday on 23 November (13).
Born in Harlem, New York to a gospel singing mother, Lynne won the Apollo Theater's amateur concert aged 15, before finding national fame in the U.S. by appearing on Harry Belafonte's Strolling '20s TV special in the 1960s.
She joined her peers Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and Johnny Mathis on the country's jazz club scene and secured hits with ballads including I Wish You Love and I'm Glad There Is You.
Lynne continued performing throughout her life, giving her last show in August (13) at New York's 54 Below venue.
The pilot episode of The Playboy Club gives us a glimpse into the first Playboy Club in Chicago, which opened in 1963. The swanky club features "bunnies," who serve privileged keyholders. Each girl on the show has her own secret and it looks like the show will unfold those secrets throughout the season. So what happens when the world's most famous bunny not named Bugs meets Mad Men? Hopefully something that does more than just cater to the teenage-horn-dog in us all.
We get a voiceover from Hugh Hefner himself, which attempts to set up the anything-can-happen vibe of the 60's-era show. We meet Maureen (Amber Heard) and besides her dancing skills and a great set of teeth (yes, I said teeth), she's pretty and the pilot does a great job showing us that through constant close-ups. However, this is all we get to learn about her in the pilot, as the show seems content with holding off on her backstory. She wants to be a star of the show, and she's got a ways to go. Of course she winds up with hunky club member, Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian), who’s also dating the aging queen bunny, Carol-Lynne (Laura Benanti).
So how much is skin does NBC show on a Monday night at 10 p.m.? Is it enough to warrant the NBC Salt Lake City affiliate from refusing to air the series? Is it enough to really upset feminist activist (and Christian Bale's step-mommy), Gloria Steinem, who once protested against the clubs by going undercover as a bunny and called for a boycott of the show? Surely there's more than enough gratuitous nudity to make the Parents Television Council demand NBC pull the show from its lineup? Sadly, for the naysayers, there's more skin shown during an autopsy on a procedural than on this series. Heck, Ashton Kutcher showed more skin in his first Two and a Half Men show than was seen on this series. It's just about a girl who wants to be the best sexpot she can be and that's all harmless fun.
Also roaming around the bunny-building is the aforementioned Carol-Lynne, who relishes using her acid tongue to cut people down to size. You can sense her lack of trust in people. As queen bunny, Carol-Lynne advises bunnies how to behave while working. No chewing gum, no leaving your post to dance. One can only assume someone will break the rules every few episode so that Benanti can get some snark in.
Another character running around is the club's manager, played by a very out of place David Krumholtz. Maybe the role will grow a bit as the series goes on, but the character seems badly miscast as Krumholtz is just not smarmy enough. Besides, his biggest moment in the pilot was answering a phone call from Hef.
It's easy to see why NBC picked the show up; it’s a period piece based around the glamorous and tumultuous sixties. Considering the time period has worked for Mad Men for four years now, the peacock is trying to deliver their own version of the decade, although Mad Men uses advertising for nostalgia's sake to reflect on current times works far better than using sex, which will always just be sex.
It's pretty hard to judge any series based on its first episode. The Playboy Club is no different. You have to introduce the main characters and the main story lines and a few characters like Naturi Naughton's Brenda seem primed for meaty, juicy story lines going forward. Chicago in the sixties is also known for an excess of organized crime, which is hinted at in the pilot. While it was a bit of a lackluster first episode, NBC could have a really good show on their hands if they can nurture it correctly, but as we all know, during the fast and furious fall premieres, that's easier said than done.
Modern television is a bit of a sexpot. Sure, it’s taken a while for sexually suggestive and explicit content to trickle from the freewheeling shows on HBO and Showtime into the major network landscape, but with the introduction of NBC’s The Playboy Club into a prominent Monday night slot reserved for big budget dramas like Hawaii Five-0 and newbie Terra Nova, it seems that we may be entering a new, freer era. But that freedom comes with a caveat in the form of conservative protest, begging the question: is network television really ready for sex?
The 1960s-set series in question centers on a young girl named Maureen (Amber Heard) who hails from some small Midwestern town and moves to the big city, Chicago, where she lands a coveted job as a Playboy bunny at the first-ever location of The Playboy Club, a Hugh Hefner-owned chain that, in more recent years, has become The Hard Rock Cafe of gentlemen’s clubs. There she meets the other bunnies including the queen bunny, Carol Lynne (Laura Benanti), as well as the club’s most magnetic member, Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian). It isn’t long before she takes the floor as the “living, breathing fantasy that is the Playboy bunny” and gets a little too much attention from one of the club’s more prominent keyholders. Everything – from her first major conflict with said keyholder, to bunnies constantly fending off men who see the club as a brothel, to the skimpy costumes and nightgown parties at Hef’s mansion, to the entire concept of the club and the series itself – is dripping with sex. It may not be graphic sex, like the HBO-only long-awaited consummation of Sookie and Eric’s lust on True Blood, but it’s still network television. There are FCC rules to comply with. The fact of the matter is that the series may garner a bit of attention by borrowing Mad Mennian elements for its 60s setting, but let’s be frank: sex and Playboy’s salacious legacy generate a majority portion of its appeal.
It’s that appeal that landed the series in hot water long before its promos even hit the small screen. First, the Salt Lake City NBC affiliate refused to air the series on grounds that it went against their morals and next, acclaimed writer and activist, Gloria Steinem, called for a boycott of the series since it’s based on the string of clubs she once cried out against. Finally, the Parents Television Council requested that NBC remove the buzzy series from its lineup. Yet somehow, it seems that these negative outcries only serve to bolster television audiences’ curiosity; we’re dying to see just how sexy this show really is. The Playboy Club was not pulled from NBC’s lineup and it’s still set to premiere Monday, Sept. 19 at 10 p.m. on NBC, though it’s probably a safe bet that Steinem and the members of the PTC won’t be tuning in.
This unfriendly reaction isn’t a novel one. Network television has never been ready for any level of unfamiliar sexuality. There hasn’t been a single moment in the last 20 years of television, let alone in the decades of television history, without at least one group of people crying out against the excess of sexualized content on the boob tube. Every time we step over an untouched boundary on the small screen, someone, somewhere protests. From the first time a couple shared a bed on television on The Mary Kay and Johnny Show in 1947, to Barbara Eden’s bikini-genie top on the 60s hit sitcom I Dream of Jeannie, to more recent issues like Gossip Girl’s controversial “OMFG” ad campaign to Glee’s racy photo shoots and frank discussions of teenage sexuality, sex on TV always has the potential to set off sparks. But it’s all part of the process. It’s a symptom of society’s push to create more openness towards sexuality and the subsequent uproar is practically a television tradition.
So how does NBC’s potential flagship series fit into this tradition? Easily. While teen series still incur the greatest wrath from angry parents and fans of more conservative content, it seems that shows branded and marketed towards adults receive a little more leeway. Maybe they can thank NYPD Blue and Officer Andy Sipowitz’ bare derriere for carrying the brunt of the controversy, but the truth is we’ve seen plenty of highly sexual content on slews of not just pay-network series, but major network series as well. Grey’s Anatomy hooked us with non-stop hospital room hook ups; Buffy the Vampire Slayer treated us to house-busting (and even dumpster-adjacent) angry sex between our heroine and an aggressive vampire; Desperate Housewives has delivered neighborhood dominatrices and wealthy housewives sleeping with teenage neighbors; Lost showed us what it would look like if two people worked out their sexual frustrations in a giant bear cage; and even The Good Wife waves around its heroine’s extramarital affair like a trophy. So why is everyone picking on The Playboy Club? It’s certainly not a member of the teen-angling 90210, Gossip Girl, Vampire Diaries set.
The argument seems to be wrapped up in the fact that Playboy magazine is technically part of the pornography industry. Which, at face value is an understandably incendiary notion, but that term, which enjoys a rather broad definition these days (you know, “I know it when I see it”) also lends a level of filth to the series that simply isn’t there. The women of the series aren’t prostituting themselves or making sex tapes, they’re wearing tiny outfits and getting into a bit of old fashioned Chicago-style trouble – some of which is more dangerous than sexual. The bunnies may be trotting around in itty-bitty outfits and playing on men’s depraved desires, but isn’t that the same thing we see yearly on The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show or the Miss Universe Pageant? (Don't fool yourself -- it is.)
NBC’s The Playboy Club is inherently sexy and sexual, but “too sexy” for network television it is not. Implied sexual content, network TV and mature themes have long been a staple of post-10 p.m. programming and the core networks are not only ready for it, they’re banking on it.