'American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story': TV Review

Courtesy of Amazon.
'Playboy' boosts its brand at the expense of Amazon's brand.
4/7/2017

Amazon gives Hugh Hefner a loving 91st birthday party, complete with his two favorite things: nudity and ample appreciation of Hugh Hefner.

It's Hugh Hefner's 91st birthday on April 9.

What did you get him?

If you're Amazon, your present to the publishing and lifestyle icon is American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story, a hybrid documentary-re-enactment series produced for every viewer who's ever watched a stern piece of nonfiction programming and thought, "What this needs is less introspection and more nudity."

"I would say Hefner is Walt Disney, and the bunny is his Mickey Mouse," says Brett Ratner, one of several predictable talking heads sacrificing insight for puffery.

Ratner does, however, suggest a very good analogy for American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story, which opens with Cooper Hefner strolling down from the Playboy Mansion and offering an intro and celebration of his father. Cooper is taking on the role that Walt Disney played in The Wonderful World of Disney, only he's a steward of a brand in desperate need of reinvention or revitalization. I understand why Cooper Hefner and company wanted to do a series like this, but American Playboy belongs on Playboy TV and not muddying the waters of what Amazon's own original-programming brand is supposed to be. Stretching Hef's story and legacy over 10 hours, American Playboy is impossible to take seriously — or at least as seriously as everybody associated with Playboy is taking it.

American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story comes to Amazon from Stephen David, who helped usher in this wave of the documentary-re-enactment hybrid with History's The Men Who Built America and AMC's The Making of the Mob. It is, I must confess, not a format that consistently works for me because it splits the difference between a documentary and a scripted docudrama, delivering the strengths of neither. The re-enactments tend to be stagy, underwritten and underacted, used to smooth over gaps in thinly reported/compiled interviews and archival footage. American Playboy suffers from both flaws, with the unifying principle seeming to be that whenever the story lags is a good time to cut to nakedness.

The opening teaser promises that American Playboy will delve into the sides of Hugh Hefner nobody knows about and into his serious work as a free-speech activist and civil-rights advocate. But Amazon only sent critics two episodes of banalities about conformity in the '50s, oft-retold stories about the acquisition of the famous Marilyn Monroe calendar pictures and bad actors depicting the gestation of Playboy as grown men smoking and giggling about the possibilities of making a magazine with fully unclothed women in the middle.

Had Amazon sent more episodes, actually getting into the meatier side of Hef's persona, I'd have watched them. Through two, nothing had gotten darker than an opening re-enactment of the police coming to arrest Hef, which probably sucked for Hef, but at least he gets to be introduced with a beautiful woman in her birthday suit riding him like a bronco. [Did Hef give approval to the factual accuracy of the re-enactments? Did he have re-enactment sexual-position veto? I'm assuming he or Cooper had veto on everything else. Or maybe it just looks like they did.]

I could list for you the actors playing Hugh Hefner (Matt Whelan) and the other members of the early Playboy team, but there are no performances worth calling attention to because there was no writer entrusted with developing character or dialogue, no director entrusted with more than making sure the suits look period-appropriate. Sometimes the "re-enactments" here consist of nothing more than a 1950s car driving down a road or young Hugh Hefner walking through a train station and looking at his watch. At best, you get Hef saying something like, "Well, we can't call it Stag anymore, so what should this magazine's name be?" And Nonentity One says, "What about Dumb Idea One?" and Nonentity Two says, "What about Dumb Idea Two?" and Nonentity Three says, "What about Playboy?" and music swells and everybody nods in recognition. A lot of very attractive models disrobe, but more often than not, they're denied names or voices. If Playboy and its generations of leaders want to proclaim a progressive role in the sexual revolution and all of that (and they certainly do), I'm entirely tolerant of that interpretation, but as progressive as Playboy can profess to be, American Playboy is just as prone to objectifying and leering at the female form.

The documentary side is composed mostly of long chunks of interviews Hugh Hefner did in 1991 and a bunch of other interviews with Playboy principles from the same period. As those folks are getting old, there are only scattered new interviews, and other than the occasional standout — Charlaine Karalus, who went from sales to Hefner mistress to centerfold, should have gotten a documentary series to herself — they're unenlightening. Current and recent Playboy employees engage in hagiography, celebrity Playboy lovers like Bill Maher offer coarse observations like, "I depended on Playboy magazine to release most of the sperm in my body," and there's a cliche-ridden voiceover left to say things like, "I realized we were no longer just a magazine. We were becoming a brand."

Perhaps it happens that the early years of Playboy just weren't that exciting. Hugh Hefner deserves praise for identifying a gap in the marketplace and for going after what he wanted, but you can't expect me to invest in the adversity of a magazine that was a hit from its first issue, was profitable in its first year and where each and every big decision — Hef sends Art Paul off to come up with a logo, and five minutes later he comes back with the bunny, and it hasn't been touched in 50-plus years — was an immaculate conception. Even when Hef is being a philandering husband or a disinterested father, his wife and daughter and son are there to salute him for choosing to put the magazine first and for testing the limits of his libido in the service of humanity. The Psychology 101 explanations for Hef's proclivities — his parents denied him intimacy, his first wife cheated first, etc. — are exclusively the most generous available interpretation. Last week, I reviewed Reelz's horrid The Kennedys: After Camelot, in which the writers took the opinion that every slur or innuendo about the Kennedys was of more value than anything positive they might have done; American Playboy is the inverse. When in doubt, worship at the altar of St. Hef.

When Amazon unceremoniously cut bait on Good Girls Revolt after one season and only a few weeks of monitoring data, I wasn't offended on behalf of the quality of the show, which wasn't spectacular (but was still, in all ways, superior to multiple shows that Amazon has renewed). I was disturbed by the optics of that kind of rush to judgment and the hasty dismissal of a show that was all about the rush to judgment and dismissal of female journalists in the 1960s. In that context, American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story plays almost as a slap in the face to the themes and fans of Good Girls Revolt or even to the honoring of journalists and journalism in the Alex Gibney-produced The New Yorker Presents.

Playboy is and has been a repository for great journalism over the decades, but those great reporters and that reportage is not a part of this sniggering whitewash, which makes it look like Amazon simply wanted to be adjacent to the Playboy lifestyle and the Playboy brand, regardless of the deterioration of its own brand.

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