American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story is a “docuseries” that blends documentary and scripted television, a product of the increasingly blurred lines between narrative and documentary genres. According to Amazon, it is “the result of unprecedented access to thousands of hours of never-before-seen footage from both Hefner’s and the Playboy archives and Hefner’s personal scrapbooks.” Sounds impressive in theory. But for Playboy and Hefner, the show is the latest attempt at a current brand boost through a transparent, biased celebration of their glory days.
The format of the 10-episode show is certainly creative, relying on reenactments of the past (Hefner is played by actor Matt Whelan), who also does voiceovers as Hefner, narrating the story as it stretches from his youth to the founding and massive growth of Playboy and—in a very rushed manner—its struggles over the last few decades. The rest of the show consists of archival footage of Hefner and others, as well as new interviews with a seemingly random assortment of people who can provide context for his life: to name a few, his daughter and former Playboy CEO Christie Hefner, his son and current Playboy CCO Cooper Hefner, Denise Richards, Bill Maher, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Playboy archivist Stephen Martinez. In journalism, access is the name of the game, but take it too far and what do you have? Propaganda.
This assortment of individuals starts to gain new meaning, however, when you dig into them a little. Brett Ratner is attempting to revive a movie about Hefner, prompting the subject himself to say in a statement that he is “very much looking forward to this collaboration.” Historian Carrie Pitzulo wrote a generally warm take on the magazine’s legacy with regards to their representation of women. Richard Rosenzweig, credited as Executive Vice President of Playboy Enterprises (though it was widely reported he had moved into a consultant role for the company in 2011), was an executive producer of American Playboy and also EPed the short-lived NBC show The Playboy Club, as well as The Girls Next Door and several of those spin-offs. Pat Lacey, credited as a Former Playboy Bunny, is a former Bunny Mother at their clubs who still sports close ties with the current Bunnies; Patty Farmer similarly fits into this mold.
So this series is not as much a docu-anything as an affirmation of the way Playboy would like to be remembered. It was produced by Alta Loma Entertainment (“a wholly owned subsidiary of Playboy Enterprises, Inc” responsible for many of their aforementioned former forays into television) and Stephen David Entertainment, known for shows like The Making of the Mob: New York, which feature a “hybrid documentary” style. Amazon does not seem to be shying away from the connection between Hefner, Playboy, and the makers of the show: in their eyes, these ties lend one to believe the series is more accurate and has more credibility. But that’s a fine line; a press release sent last week linked to a playlist called “Hef’s Favorite Songs” that is “now available to download and stream exclusively on Amazon Music.” And (emphasis mine):
The 90-year-old Hefner, who turns 91 on Sunday, has been deeply involved in the development and production of American Playboy, imbuing the series with rich first-person accounts and never-before-told stories.
“...American Playboy begins in post-war America and takes us through the launch of Playboy magazine in 1953 and the next six decades of Hefner’s life and career,” the release adds, noting that, as the show does not until its credits, Rozenzweig is a “longtime Playboy executive” and that he produced the show.
In practice, American Playboy is not bolstered by this close connection—it suffers from it. The softly lit, dreamy reenactments include stilted, often repetitive dialogue: “What can I say? Sometimes being the owner has its perks,” Whelan as Hefner says in one episode. “Of course being the head of the most successful club in the world had other perks,” he repeats later, this time of Playboy executive Victor Lownes. You can guess as to what he’s referencing in both instances. This seems to play off the continued obsession with midcentury America started by Mad Men, right down to the use of “Rivers of Babylon.” It’s unclear exactly what kind of vetting was done for the voiceovers the writers—several of whom are responsible for other SDE shows—have Whelan read as Hefner, leaving one wondering whether they were merely inspired by the man, or if someone on the inside got script approval.
The message being pushed above all is that Hefner was a journalistic visionary who believed in freedom of the press, civil rights, gay rights, allowed Americans to push their sexual boundaries during a time when obscenity laws were far more commonplace than they are now, and was willing to fight the law for all of it. American Playboy covers all the most captivating moments in the company’s history—the launch of the Playboy Clubs, the lawsuits they got involved in, the several tragedies the befell women close to the company and Hefner, their competition with Penthouse, and their clash with the women’s movement.
There is some selective memory as to how certain events went down. During a lengthy section devoted to how good it was of the company to pass on the Vanessa Williams photos released by Penthouse that ultimately led to her having to give up her crown, the message made very clear is: Playboy could have published them, but didn’t, because Williams clearly didn’t want them out there. But right before the Williams scandal is brought up, Vanna White is named as an example of how nude celebrities were added to the magazine in the ’80s instead of just girls next door. White, however, has been vocal about the fact that the photos were taken long before she was famous, and that she did not want them to be published. “Women like Vanna White graced the covers and helped us increase sales,” Whelan, as Hefner, says.
“Once I got Wheel of Fortune and some fame, Hugh Hefner then bought those pictures. He’s the one who put me on the cover of the magazine,” White said quite recently. And earlier, to Wendy Williams: “[Hugh] was my friend and he said, ‘Vanna, we are going to put you on the cover.’ I said, ‘Hef, if you put me on the cover, my career could be ruined,’ and they did it anyway.”
The majority of the show is focused on when things were mostly good for Playboy, and Hefner was young and handsome. The last episode skims through a huge portion of the company’s history, from the ’80s to today, again narrated by old interviews of Hefner (most of which, throughout the series, appear to be from 1991) and almost no reenactments. His second marriage is glossed over as happy until it wasn’t, civil after that. Discussion of The Girls Next Door includes none of the subsequent drama from the women he dated there. His relationship with his current wife Crystal is painted as bliss, that it “couldn’t be more perfect, and I’m happier today than I’ve ever been. She really is my one true love.”
As for the company now, there’s praise of their new Club launch and branded products. For someone who doesn’t know much about Playboy or Hefner outside of both entities’ predilection for naked women, American Playboy hits all the main points. But a story can rarely, if ever, be accurately or interestingly told by entities still trying to maintain their hold on the narrative; it takes a real biographer to do it. And for someone so interested in censorship, Hefner’s never quite gotten over his need to be the one controlling his own story. The show gives this impulse a cursory nod when Whelan, as Hefner, says, “This is my story. Or at least how I remember it.” Now that Playboy’s heydays are over, they seem dedicated to reminding everyone that their brand—and above all Hefner—was once revolutionary. The only downside is, well, all that’s in the past tense.