Reality television is particularly vulnerable to what scientists call the "observer's paradox," the notion that the observation of a subject changes its behavior, making the truth of that subject impossible to accurately measure. Even in the grittiest documentary—much less programming designed as light evening entertainment—the presence of the camera can't help but alter in some way the events it captures.
By all rights, the observer's paradox should have long since buried The Girls Next Door, the E! Network's chronicle of 81-year-old Playboy founder Hugh Hefner's life with three young blonde girlfriends. Girls succeeds where other such shows have failed because its very DNA defies the observer's paradox—its reality and its artifice are so entangled, entwined, and confused that neither can be affected by the fact that two million Americans watch it every week.
Our stars are Holly Madison, 28 years old, 36-23-36, the group's mother hen; Bridget Marquardt, 34 years old, 34-25-36, sweet and bubbly; and Kendra Wilkinson, 22 years old, 34-24-32, sporty and attitudinal. Holly is the only one of the three who shares Hefner's bed (at least, as far as we see); Bridget and Kendra have bedrooms down the hall. The secondary girlfriends function more as friends and housemates to the primary couple than as lovers to Hefner. The series' primary overarching drama is provided by Holly's oft-stated desire to marry Hefner and have children, a quest in which she receives only encouragement from Bridget and Kendra. None of this would make the slightest bit of sense in the real world—but then, Hefner didn't kick-start the sexual revolution so he could live in the real world.
The layers of artifice are thick: a show about a transparently unworkable living arrangement, the lucrative survival of which depends upon widespread belief in an unbelievable situation. On TV, The Girls Next Door plays like a skillfully crafted, easily disregarded fantasy in which a rich old man has three blazing-hot girlfriends who all coexist peacefully and happily. We can comfortably scoff, confident that the backbiting has been consigned to the cutting-room floor by the producers—one of whom happens to be a Mr. Hugh M. Hefner.
So is that the case? On DVD, Girls adds another layer of confusion (along with copious nudity, blessedly free from basic cable's oddly disturbing pixilation). Cue up the just-released third season and you find an effervescent entertainment whose veracity seems always in question. But listen to the girlfriends' commentary tracks on each and every episode and you'll hear Holly, Bridget, and Kendra interact naturally, playfully, and happily for five and a half hours straight—giving every indication that their offscreen relationship mirrors their onscreen relationship.
Watch the episode in which Holly buys a Toyota Prius and it seems perfectly clear that the plotline exists only because she was offered a free car in exchange for onscreen promotion…until, in the commentary, Holly wonders aloud why she's paying when Toyota got so much free advertising.
The commentaries are especially entertaining given the girls' penchant for deconstructing their own show. All three take glee in pointing out the ways in which the editing rearranges chronology or alters events, and never fail to note when scenes have been staged for plot reasons or repeated to get a better "take." In the opening scene of an episode in which the household heads out to a renaissance fair, Hefner is seen opening an invitation to the event. He plays the scene like a pro, but who needs an invitation to a renaissance fair? "I smell…[sniff, sniff]…a setup!" snarks Holly on the commentary track.
So The Girls Next Door is fact wrapped in fiction dressed up as fact, an insoluble riddle perhaps even to the people involved. What's an informed consumer of reality television to do? When confronted with the difficult task of distinguishing between reality and fantasy, sometimes it's best simply to…hey, look! Boobs!