Which may be why The Girls Next Door is so much escapist fun, speaking as it does to our Cinderella fantasies, the unreconstructed little-girl dreams we’re supposed to reject as we grow up and become aware of the compromises traditional roles demand but which continue to seduce us even as we renounce them. Which may also be why the show, for all its dwelling on bobbing, silicone-enhanced breasts and its easy camaraderie with nudity, isn’t essentially sexy so much as a half-cozy, half-tongue-in-cheek mixture of Father Knows Best and Girls Gone Wild. (One boundary-violating episode has Bridget practicing a bursting-out-of-a-cake striptease for Hef’s eightieth birthday in front of her parents—in front of her father—as though she were practicing piano.) The wildness in this case has more to do with picking up cupcakes from the bakery (for Holly and Hef’s anniversary) than picking up stray boys looking to get laid. Hef’s mythic sex palace, it turns out, is nothing but a soft-porn slumber party. If you hang around long enough, you can catch Kendra bumping and grinding to some sexy song playing in her head, but that’s about as much action as you’ll get.
In the end, I guess you could rationalize the grip the show has on its audience by noting that it’s good fun and that we all need time off from Hillary Clinton models of femaleness. You could—except for Kendra, whose “wild party girl” persona is integral to the show’s appeal but also points to its troubling underside: its inability to separate the Playboy brand from the flesh-and-blood girls who help promote it. Despite her rogue airs, Kendra strikes me as clueless, a lost soul straight out of Nathanael West’s devastating novella of Hollywood ambition, The Day of the Locust. (It seems only fitting that the mansion is a tourist stop on the official Hollywood Star Map.)