Quixotically, perhaps, I am still in the habit of looking for the real in reality television. But that does seem to be part of the bargain: If there were not the slightest chance that the thing behind the curtain were indeed the freak advertised on the midway, there'd be little reason to waste your time or dollar there.
"The Girls Next Door," which begins its fourth season Sunday night on E!, offers a sideshow-strange glimpse into what some might still consider the fabulous world of the Playboy Mansion, its octogenarian proprietor and the three women who currently constitute his personal harem. We can only guess or imagine the deeper particulars of this arrangement, but they are at the very least Mr. Hefner's pampered housemates: Kendra, 22; Bridget, 34; and, Holly, 27, who shares his bedroom and therefore may be regarded as what in the old tongue was called his "special lady." For all that Hugh Hefner has been a voice for free-thinking, he is also thoroughly, even discordantly, a man of his 20th century times: Marilyn Monroe graced the cover of the first Playboy, 54 years ago, and his present girlfriends fit the antique mold: blond, red-lipped and big-breasted by any means necessary.
Though I have never gone out of my way to watch this show, when I stumble upon it, I tend to stick around. However incomplete or stage-managed the view, it is a fascinating one, as of a place where normal physics are suspended or the people all walk backward. And unlike some other reality shows, its effect is to make you suspend rather than cast judgment, so on the whole it is a pleasant place to be. Whatever else you care to think about these next-door girls, they seem like nice people and their lifestyle choices less than pathological. It's a big world, and there are a lot of ways to live in it, and if you can find bliss with a man old enough to be your grandfather, or even great-grandfather, I will not be the one to call you mistaken.
Somewhat perversely, my main interest here is Hefner himself, who is more than a shadow but less than a presence. It would be nice to get some small idea of what goes on in his head, but he remains inscrutable in the way of Elvis Presley or Charles Foster Kane. And yet, even as the show takes care to demonstrate that he's spry for his years, it oddly enfeebles him -- often leaves him looking like an old man in his (admittedly very nice) pajamas. His vocal contributions are limited to the occasional plot-advancing statement or saucy comment. "I can show you my stuff," says Holly, in the commonplace sense of the word. "I've seen your stuff," says Hef, "and I love it." He must like the way he appears, though; he could easily stay in his bedroom.
Sunday's episode finds the cast in a patriotic frame of mind, celebrating the Fourth of July, entertaining Marines and welcoming Bridget's brother home (on leave) from Iraq. "God bless America," we hear Hef say at the end, and there's no question that the country has been good to him.
By contrast, the life portrayed in "Snoop Dogg's Father Hood," which premieres Sunday just after "The Girls Next Door," is resoundingly familiar. That's because we've seen it many times before, over half a century of situation comedies. "This ain't the Huxtables," Snoop raps in the opening credits, but he's closer than he thinks. The dreamy, distractible dad; the sensible, capable mother; the rambunctious children, looking somewhat askance at their folks -- as represented here, the Calvin Broadus family might as well have been created by Sherwood Schwartz.
Beyond names and interests and a general impression of the familial vibe -- functional and relatively bling-free -- one should, of course, not mistake this for revelation. It is all highly, highly arranged and organized. However much may be borrowed from the participants' lives, and however many of the words are their own, it has been made into something purely sitcomical, with complementary A and B story lines.
In tonight's episode, Snoop loses a push-up contest with his older son ("Elizabeth, I'm comin' to join you," he wheezes, echoing Redd Foxx) and it is decided that he should see a doctor. Much is made of his fear of needles, which may be genuine enough, and the doctor sends him first to a yoga class, and then to a blind acupuncturist, from whom he runs. (He discovers finally that vacuuming is his Zen.) In another, he tries to get his kids to share his love of soccer -- "I'm trying to get y'all thinking outside of America" -- which leads to his claiming a nonexistent friendship with David Beckham. It's the premise that launched a thousand guest shots, and Beckham appears in due course.