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A trash-TV addict gives Fox’s Search for a Playboy Centerfold a double D-minus.

Understand this: I like bad television. I like bad TV the way anteaters like ants, the way fat people like midnight drive-throughs. I like my TV like Tommy Lee likes his women: easy and slightly degraded. But even a masochist such as myself has a pain threshold, one which was exceeded last Friday night while watching Fox’s two-hour reality one-shot: Girl Next Door: The Search for a Playboy Centerfold.

You know a show is truly abysmal when you start pining for all the other bad shows that are advertised in the middle of it (e.g. Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed, Looking for Love: Bachelorettes in Alaska.) Brought to us by Bunim/Murray Productions — the creators of perennial bad-TV favorite The Real WorldSearch for a Centerfold has modest enough ambitions.

After a nationwide "talent" search, the good folks at Playboy magazine bring twelve finalists to Holmby Hills, California, so that they can hole up in the Bunny barracks across the street from Hugh Hefner’s mansion. After a grueling couple of weeks of photo shoots, massages, and more photo shoots, cuts will be made, spirits will be crushed, until finally one lucky winner, selected by Hef himself, will become Playboy‘s Miss July 2002. At this time, she will be afforded all the Playmate spoils: swimming in other people’s Grotto secretions, getting to pretend she finds Hefner attractive, attending mansion parties where she’ll be felt up by Jimmy Caan.

There is, of course, no shortage of fame-starved women willing to run this Habitrail of humiliation. But here, as they say in the one-handed magazine business, is the rub: this girl is supposed to look and act like the "girl next door." Consequently, we see curly-haired Shallon, who looks like the town teeter-totter on which everyone’s had a ride, tell photographer Billy before a photo shoot, "I’ve never done anything like this before." Billy sounds surprised: "Oh really? Okay, then you are just like the girl next door." As if to sledgehammer the point home, Billy later tells the camera, "Shallon’s definitely the type of girl we’re looking for. She has that girl-next-door quality."

Perhaps Shallon is the girl next door, if you live in Las Vegas, where she is from. Of course, most of the other girls hail from the salt-of-the-earth mines, and in fairness to them, there are worse things than dropping trou on camera to get out of Cleveland. Like staying in Cleveland, for instance.

Because Playboy has always labored to preserve the illusion of innocence, they assign the girls a "Bunny Mother." Ava Fabian, a 1986 Playmate who looks to have been around the block a time or ten, tells the girls "you can talk to me about anything" — collagen leaks, how to weed-whack their secret gardens before a photo shoot, whatever. One of the girls takes Ava up on her offer after a very rare flare-up of conscience. During a reflective walk, nineteen-year-old Carmello confesses to Ava that she might not be ready to get naked. "I thought I’d be, like, okay with it," says Carmello, trying to illuminate her dark night of the soul. "But it’s so weird, like, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I just like feel so weird now.’" Ava, a repository of ancient wisdom, cuts to the problem’s quick: "Well, you probably didn’t get enough sleep last night."

A dark-eyed Latina and by far the most attractive of the lot, Carmello actually does seem like the girl next door and does what one would do in an identical situation: she splits. (When she calls her real mother to break the good news that she won’t be posing nude after all, her irate mom tries to talk her out of it). But most of the rest of the women are in it to win it. They never come right out and admit that their most sincere desire is to achieve fame at any cost. Rather, they say they want to "express themselves" — which I would think could be done more easily by taking up ceramics or sock-puppeteering. But then, I’m not a girl next door.

Still, these girls are so transparently ambitious that they don’t even bother doing the things that would’ve made this a genuinely watchable program — like taking group showers, or having the mother of all pillow fights. Instead, they try to psych each other out with what one aspirant calls "mind games," which are elementary in their execution ("she’s not very pretty"), because they don’t possess a whole lot of the former in order to play the latter.

Not to say the girls aren’t bright, but the house intellectual seems to be Lauren, a twenty-one-year-old from Gainesville, Florida, who complains that her organic-chemistry professor (no, seriously) claimed he’d flunk her for taking this little sabbatical. Additionally, at a bathing-suit fitting for an upcoming shoot, she astutely notes that, "I’m wearing a bikini that’s leopard print, which is, like, very appropriate for me, since I’m in veterinary medicine."

Lurking over the show like a bad odor is the presence of Hefner. When the girls aren’t deliberating among themselves who is Hef’s type ("He likes, like, refined,") Hefner is mulling over whom to cut in photo meetings, where his staff agrees with every utterance as the "philosopher king" (as Esquire recently called him) evidences his keen editorial judgment: "She’s a little thick in the body."

Creepier still is when Hef pops into the bunny hutch to see how the girls are getting along. Just once, it would be nice to see him turn out in golf knits or a crisp pair of khakis. But there he is in those pajamas, the one’s he’s been wearing for forty years. The girls giggle obligatorily, as Hef throws off anachronistic hep-cattisms, like "Later, alligator."

At seventy-five years old, Hef is certainly teetering on the edge of irrelevance, if not incontinence. While he’s never wanted to admit that he’s in the porn business (he prefers to think of it as a "lifestyle magazine"), Playboy content has always been too soft to be considered real smut, and too hard to get passed around in dental offices. In either case, pictures of silicone sisters striking unnatural poses in unlikely settings are now much more accessible on the Internet, where one can indulge fantasies without having to endure smarmy looks from 7-Eleven cashiers.

So there is something a little extra pathetic about watching Hefner service his legacy. He has always worked overtime in this department, anyway, comparing himself to Capra characters, claiming he was "testing the boundaries," and generally convincing himself and others of his own profundity, even when he couldn’t come up with anything better than cool-cat palaver like, "We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion of Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex."

Of course, a late ’90s retro cool cloud descended over the mansion, particularly after a Viagra-popping Hef went back on the loose after his 1998 divorce. The Friars Club gave him a lifetime achievement award, and the American Society of Magazine Editors inducted him into their hall of fame. It almost seemed indecorous to point out that the man’s only achievements have been throwing some really swell parties, spending his entire adult life in pajamas and putting out a stroke magazine.

As Lenny Bruce once observed, "There’s nothing sadder than an aging hipster." And one senses that Hefner is entering his dogtrack period. First, there were those ridiculous pictures of him trying to get funky on the mansion dance floor with girls one-half his daughter’s age. Then there was the report in Philadelphia magazine, that despite his grandiose displays of virility, in which he claimed to be bedding four to eight girls at a time, the only thing that really put lead in his pencil was watching gay porn (Hefner denied it). Then last fall came word that someone as schmucky as comedian Rob Schneider (of Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo fame) was making out with one of Hefner’s harem right in front of Hefner.

Now he’s laid this smoking turd on Fox. While anti-obscenity groups screamed like ninnies over Girl Next Door — one suspects to Hefner’s delight — the show doesn’t even contain nudity. With all the strategically placed lighting rigs and production assistants’ heads, the whole special doesn’t yield much more skin than your average episode of The O’Reilly Factor. And how Hefner finally selected Miss July is beyond me. She wasn’t particularly striking, nor were any of the contestants, unless your taste runs toward overworked porn-star blandness and breasts the size of canned hams.

Eventually, he chose Lauren, perhaps because, in his telling, "She loves animals and is in veterinary medicine, and when I was a kid, that’s what I wanted to do." When Lauren is driven to the mansion in a limousine, Hef greets her somewhat lecherously with a diamond-caked bunny necklace, telling her, "I want to welcome you to the Playboy family." It’s always been one of Hef’s favorite conceits to refer to his little arrangement as a "family," albeit one in which Dad takes naughty pictures of Sis. And Lauren will doubtless partake in all sorts of family activities: picnics on the lawn, trips to the zoo, group sex with other platinum blondes whose names rhyme. To each her own. Still, someone should do the charitable thing and spare this family any more embarrassment by reporting them to Social Services.