Judge Joel Pearce is thankful these girls don't live next door to him.
Our reviews of The Girls Next Door: Season Two (published May 9th, 2007), The Girls Next Door: Season Three (published January 28th, 2008), The Girls Next Door: Season Four (published March 23rd, 2009), The Girls Next Door: Season Five (published July 13th, 2009), and The Girls Next Door: Season Six (published July 19th, 2011) are also available.
We call it a fantasy. They call it home.
The number one landmark for our society's increased emphasis on celebrity and hedonism is the Playboy mansion. The seat of the naughty empire, it is a hot spot for partying celebrities, starry-eyed future Playmates, and 79-year-old Hugh Hefner, the Alexander the Great of pornography. The Girls Next Door promises to offer an inside look at the capital of sinful pleasure, but it ultimately takes us on a very different tour than expected.
Facts of the Case
It seems bizarre base a reality show on the lives of Hugh Hefner's three live-in girlfriends. After all, the Playboy mansion isn't supposed to be anything like "reality"—at least not the reality we all experience. Still, someone thought it would be pretty compelling viewing to explore how Hef's girlfriends live and what it's like behind the scenes of this famous location. We get three tour guides for this little excursion into paradise:
Holly Madison is Hugh's number one girlfriend, which means she shares a room with him, and is obviously the dominant of the three girls. She is young and ambitious, though doesn't mind (too much) sharing Hugh with two other women.
Bridget Marquardt is the "smart" one of the three as she is currently working on her second Masters degree. More than anything, though, she has always wanted a chance to be in Playboy Magazine, and sees her position in the mansion as the next best thing to that dream.
Kendra Wilkinson is the newest and youngest of the girlfriends. She is wild, impulsive, and spunky. She loves all things athletic, though she certainly didn't arrive at the mansion because of her depth and intelligence.
The first season of The Girls Next Door follows the day-to-day adventures of Holly, Bridget, and Kendra as they live in the mansion, get involved in events, and get the chance to appear in the magazine for the first time.
When The Girls Next Door showed up on my docket, I expected it to be a painfully shallow, raunchy foray into the reality television genre. It is, of course, painfully shallow, though it is far less raunchy than I expected it to be. My other surprise is that the series can be somewhat compelling, though not for the reasons that our three blond hostesses would hope. For all of the girls, there is a massive disconnect between how they see and understand themselves and how they actually come across in the show. While the girls themselves aren't especially bright, I'm impressed by what the film crew was able to get away with here. At moments, The Girls Next Door is truly impressive satire. Even after a full 15 episodes, the girls don't realize how they come across on camera. That anyone could be so blind about themselves is fascinating and disturbing. Over the next few paragraphs, I would like to explore these disconnects:
Holly is by far the most articulate of the three girlfriends, and understands that she is in a particularly important position in the mansion. Her interviews are full of confidence, as she looks ahead to her future as Hefner's number one girl. Somewhere along the way she's managed to convince herself that a wide-eyed 25-year-old from Alaska is somehow different from the dozens of other young blonds who have been in her position before now. She genuinely believes that she and Hugh are soulmates, without ever needing to explain to herself why he feels the need to have two other live-in girlfriends as well. After each of these interviews we watch amusedly as she makes (numerous) paranoid phone calls to him every couple of hours that she's away and glares at other women with jealousy and fear. Holly will be completely heartbroken when her time as the number one girlfriend goes up in flame, and she will be the only one that doesn't see it coming.
Bridget may be the oldest of the three girlfriends, as well as the most academically accomplished, but she really does come across like a very young, very naive, small town girl. Even though she's accomplished so much on her own, the only reward she ever looks to is Hefner's validation and approval. Here she is, in her mid 30s, clinging on to her childhood dream of appearing in Playboy Magazine. When it finally does happen, it gives her far more pleasure than her other achievements possibly could. The saddest episode for me is the one in which the girls give Bridget's teenage sister a makeover. They do it to give her a self-confidence boost since she sometimes feels frumpy surrounded by silocone-injected playmates. For Bridget, appearance is the biggest measure of success. She deserves to be doing so much more for herself.
Of the three girls, Kendra is the one that sees herself the most clearly. She is not too bright, and doesn't care. She is wild and impulsive, and loves living that way. However, it strikes me as odd that she defines herself by her love of (and skill in) athletics. In almost every episode, Kendra is shown playing some sport or another, and she sucks at every single one. In fact, it's downright hilarious to watch her touting herself as some sporty queen, only to fail so miserably at everything she tries. By the fifteenth episode, it's clear that her athletic talent is just as fake as her almost comically large breasts. How can she keep referring to herself as an athlete? Does she really believe that she's good? Is she just joking when she makes excuses for all of her failures? It's not until the last episode that she actually shows any sports skill at all.
So, none of the girls see themselves clearly, but all of them are completely happy in their lives at the mansion. Not only are the girls happy, but this lifestyle is clearly touted as some sort of dream existence. In fact, this hedonistic lifestyle is often discussed as a new American dream. This is apt, since the growth of Hugh Hefner's Playboy empire was very much caught up in the American dream of the '50s and '60s. He grew from nothing, using ingenuity and hard work (and still works hard on the magazine at 79) in order to obtain the luxurious lifestyle that he now leads. He is a self-made man, and has become very respected in the industry. That American dream seems to have given way to something far less impressive, though. None of the three girlfriends have worked very hard to get where they are now. Instead, they simply look good enough to be chosen for this glamorous life. In fact, Holly has a very interesting interview segment in which she discusses her willingness to get the surgery required to gain the look that would lead her to this lifestyle. Now that they have arrived, they do nothing to maintain that dream. The biggest challenges the girls face are spiders in the limo ("I don't want to squish it") and getting up early for day trips. One episode focuses on Holly's decision to set up a barbecue for some friends, and it takes her all day to buy the ingredients she needs ("it's like a scavenger hunt"), call the butlers for additional food orders, and actually cook the food (with detailed instructions from the aforementioned butlers). All this for hotdogs and hamburgers. Afterwards, she's shocked to discover how difficult it is to be a hostess and clean up after dinner. Is this the new ideal life? An existence so reliant on the help of servants that we don't even know how to take care of ourselves? If so, The Girls Next Door is not shallow at all, but rather a much needed harbinger of societal decay.
There are other troubling truths slinking below the surface. While the girls refer to Hefner as the nicest and most charming guy ever, what we actually see of him is quite different. When Kendra needs to ask him for a favor, she is genuinely scared to approach him. If he's that nice and charming, why is she so scared? After all, he never says no to anything they ask—at least that we see in the show. Still, the 9:00 curfew is a bit strange, and the fact that he takes his own food along to restaurants is just bizarre. I get the distinct impression that we are really only seeing what he wants us to see. There are hints of another side of him, but we don't get to see it.
The thing that troubles me most, though, is The Girls Next Door's target audience. It's obviously not for the readers of Playboy Magazine, who would prefer to just see the three girls naked, not follow them around on their journeys to the salon. Ultimately, it becomes clear that the show is primarily targeted towards teenage girls, in the hopes of convincing them that the lives the three girls lead is indeed a dream to follow. I could go on a rant about what that says about teenage girls and values, but I see little point. Perhaps we truly have come to the point where we don't mind Playboy targeting underage girls and teaching them that plastic surgery and fake boobs are the best ways of getting where they want in life.
Fans of the series and the three girls themselves (should any of them ever make their way to our little site) would surely argue with everything I've said here. They would shrug off my opinions, claiming that The Girls Next Door is really just supposed to be light fun. I would argue that any show presents its values, even if it is designed to be innocuous fun. I suppose we will all just have to agree to disagree on what this show really has to say.
Even if the show isn't offensive, it has some serious structural flaws. Storytelling is driven by conflict, whether it's internal or external. This series has no tension between any of the girls or in their own experiences. The series creators have added music to give the illusion of conflict, but nothing bad ever happens to the girls, and they never have difficult decisions to make. In a universe where the most difficult part of your day is deciding what you want for lunch, the actual events of the show are as vacuous as its three hosts. Only the irony that they don't see that makes the series watchable.
Regardless of the quality of the show, Fox has done a very impressive job with the DVD. The original soundtrack is included on all episodes, as well as an uncensored track that lets the girls drop the F-bomb sometimes. The transfer is bright and colorful, accurately capturing the exotic life at the mansion. Holly, Bridget, and Kendra have recorded a commentary for each episode, surprisingly cheerful considering how they come off in the series. Also, there are deleted scenes for most episodes, some of which include more graphic footage or sequences that just didn't make the cut. The last disc includes an unaired pilot, which focused on Hefner himself instead of the girls. I guess it just didn't have enough appeal that way. There's a very large photo gallery, though it shows the production of the series, not the photo shoots that the girls were in. Finally, there are "personality tests" for the three girls. These tests actually turn out to be short interviews, mostly repeating things from the actual episodes. Maybe they quickly added the interviews when the personality tests came back negative.
At the end of it all, The Girls Next Door doesn't feel entertaining or titillating so much as it just feels calculated. How interesting that the series would be timed so well with the appearance of Hefner's three girlfriends in the magazine, the opening of the new Playboy club in Las Vegas, and the release of the Playboy mansion computer game. Playboy is a smart company, and this show reeks of opportunistic cross-marketing. A lot of people have gotten hooked on this show, though I'm not sure I understand why. It is, however, a fascinating example of post-reality television, in which we are no longer interested in seeing the lives of ordinary people. This is the realization of a new and dangerous dream existence, one that has no responsibilities, no individual achievement, and no future. Cheers.
Nice try, girls, but your show isn't any better than Holly's cooking. Maybe the remake in ten years with Hugh's new younger girlfriends will be better.
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Scales of Justice
• Unaired Pilot
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