Amber Heard and Laura Benanti

The main thing that Chad Hodge wants you to know about his upcoming NBC series The Playboy Club is that it's not about the centerfolds. When Hodge, who last created The CW drama Runaway, was first approached by the studio to do a show about Hugh Hefner's famous Playboy Bunnies, his reaction was, "Is this going to be a scripted version of The Girls Next Door? No, thank you."

But that was before he knew about the rather significant difference between Bunnies and the Playmates. Hef's Bunnies worked at his chain of nightclubs, the first of which opened in Chicago in 1960 and where membership was a status symbol. Bunnies — primarily waitresses and cigarette hawkers — were not allowed to date patrons, known as "keyholders," who in turn were not allowed to touch the Bunnies. Playmates were those who modeled, often nude, for Playboy magazine.

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Hodge wanted to create a dark twisty soap about the world of the Bunnies — and the men and mobsters who adored them. "I want this to be the thing that you come home drunk, sit on your couch, look at your DVR list and it's the first thing you want to watch. That was my mission." But his first job has been explaining — and re-explaining — that the show is not about the centerfolds. "There's a certain controversy that naturally swirls around our show because people's feelings about Playboy, the company and the name itself," he said. It's a brand that has drawn early ire from the Parents Television Council and caused at least one NBC affiliate to refuse to air it.

Over the summer, Hodge emphasized to reporters at the network's fall preview session that the show, in fact, displayed a certain kind of female empowerment for its era. "I understand why people question that, but really what this show is, above all, is a sexy, fun soap with crime, with music, with love stories and love triangles," he said. "It's really, really fun."

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TVGuide.com spoke with Hodge about the research that went into creating The Playboy Club, the show's troubled protagonist Maureen (Amber Heard), and the story behind the club's closeted lesbian Bunny.

What research did you do for The Playboy Club?
Hodge:
I didn't know a ton about it. My first stop was the Playboy Mansion and I went up to the archives in Hef's mansion. He has over 2,500 scrapbooks that are maintained. As soon as I learned about the history of the club, the Bunnies and what the Chicago Playboy Club was like and what these stories could be, and I talked to former Bunnies, I was totally excited. I thought it should be a network show, in fact. If it was something about Playboy Magazine and we were telling a story about centerfolds, that's a different story. Most people don't know that the Playboy Bunnies had virtually nothing to do with Playboy magazine and being a centerfold. Bunnies were waitresses in bathing suits.

What's the coolest thing you found in the Playboy archives?
Hodge:
When Hef was 14 or 15, he started keeping a journal of his life except it wasn't a normal journal like you think of. It was a cartoon comic strip of himself. So if he got into a fight with his mother that day, he would detail the fight in the comics. It was hilarious. He would write it out like a comic book and draw all the pictures. He did that for several years about his friends, his school, his parents. It really inspired much of the series. Hef's voiceover, the idea of the omniscient narrator and Hef creating this world and creating our story sort of came from that.

Though the series is an ensemble, Maureen is our eyes into the club. Tell us about her.
Hodge:
We're coming in with her and she wants to be a star. She comes from somewhere else and is seeing this for the first time — and then this horrible thing happens to her within the first three minutes of the show. Suddenly we're off and running and Maureen is at the center of that story. I didn't want her to be the doe-eyed optimist or the girl who fell off the turnip truck, I wanted her to be damaged and troubled. I wanted her to feel like she's lived nine lives. Stuff has happened to her and you'll find out what that is in the series. She comes here with a lot of baggage.

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Because of that horrible thing that happens, she gets involved with key holder Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian). What can you say about where she's headed?
Hodge:
When she thinks that Nick isn't adequately covering up what happened, she'll go on her own and take care of things. She develops a relationship with the mob, who are the very people who are after her. She keeps them close.

You introduce this underground society of homosexuals, The Mattachine Society, in the pilot. Is that something that came up in your research?
Hodge:
Most gay history you hear about starts at Stonewall, but this is way before that.  [The Mattachine Society] started, in fact, in the late '50s and into the '60s, and chapters sprouted up in all cities across the country. This is about the Chicago chapter ... I didn't include it because I necessarily felt a need to make a statement in any way. History comes into play in many ways through this show, but it's always through character. I knew that I wanted this one specific character to be a closeted lesbian who was in a marriage, a lavender marriage, which is a marriage of convenience where a gay woman and a gay man are married as a cover. ... But like I said before, this show is fun and entertaining and about our characters, so the story line isn't driven by the history so much as the people in the world.

The Playboy Club premieres Monday at 10/9c on NBC.