“You may think you know me,” says Hugh Hefner in Amazon’s new documentary series about Hugh Hefner. “The guy who has it all, the lavish mansion, the legendary parties. But there is a lot you don’t know.” It’s an intriguing promise with which to open a TV series, but the problem is that this isn’t just any series: it’s a Hugh Hefner documentary produced by Playboy Enterprises’ own production arm, Alta Loma Entertainment, and is made with the heavy involvement of, you guessed it, Hugh Hefner. There may be a lot we don’t know about the man who gave us Playboy. But if there is, this isn’t the place to find out.
The show, which was announced out of the blue earlier this year, is very much the official account of Hefner and his bunny-branded empire. It’s assembled, we’re told, from clippings out of the Playboy archives and Hefner’s personal scrapbooks, which, in the weirdest piece of trivia you’ll read today number more than 2,900 – a Guinness World Record. For all of that personal touch, though, there’s never a sense of getting to know the real man – at least, not in the two episodes that were made available to press in advance of the show’s release.
There is some fascination in the inside account of how Hefner began his brand effectively from his own bedroom, an indie origin for what is now a corporate giant. We learn how Hugh hawked his own belongings and furniture to fund the magazine’s early days, how it originally started under the name Stag Party, until a hunting publication threatened to sue them, and how one of the women who worked on the mag became Hefner’s sweetheart and even posed for photos in the magazine.
That’s where the series falls down, though, because this is the Hefner-endorsed version of events, which means that at no point are the magazine’s morals or standards brought into question. The idea of putting pin-ups on the page, perhaps unsurprisingly, was something Hefner came up with when working on a college magazine when he was an immature youngster. Doing so on a bigger scale is presented as a huge step forward for society, without any debate whatsoever.
There’s an interesting argument raised that in post-war America, society was very prudish about about sex, and that Hefner was helping to increase discussion about a taboo topic – indeed, he was, apparently, very influenced by Kinsey’s landmark research. At the same time, he was also helping to shape the way masculinity was defined, moving away from hunting and more towards furniture and culture. But this line of enquiry is swiftly dropped, so that we can continue to hear about how Hugh bargained his way to getting nude pictures of Marilyn Monroe. Talking heads, meanwhile, are limited mostly to comedian Bill Maher, who is presumably one of the few pundits willing to unequivocally praise Playboy for its values and historical importance. The show is keen to position Hefner as an advocate of civil rights and freedom of speech, but there’s an exploitation that goes hand in hand with Playboy’s cry of liberation; as the old saying ironically acknowledges, nobody read Playboy Magazine for the articles.
The refusal to really engage with these issues mean that the show comes across more as a glossy advert than a documentary – a shame, as Hefner is undeniably a figure who has wielded significant influence, and, as a 90-year-old man, no doubt has an interesting perspective on decades of major world events. It’s telling that the best moments of the series’ early episodes come from the archive footage. The rest of it is taken up by cheesy reenactments, which only add to the artificial feel – no matter how much a cast, led by a handsome Matt Whelan, do their best to sell it as serious drama. For all its surface sheen and evident ambition, there’s no getting away from the fact that Playboy was made by a man who was mostly motivated by the fact that there wasn’t a magazine out there to match the under-represented voice of the white man with a fondness of scantily-clad models. There are still several episodes left in the series, which could well contain fresh surprises about feminism, Bill Cosby and more, but for now, this is Hefner as seen by Hefner. And that’s not enough to make us want to turn the page.
All episodes of American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story are available to watch online exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.