By Josef Adalian
Some might see E!’s new summer hit "Kendra" as nothing more than another fluffy reality show. But to creator Kevin Burns, the "Girls Next Door" spinoff is actually a modern twist on a sitcom classic.
"I look at ‘Kendra’ as a reworking of ‘I Love Lucy,’" Burns said, noting that the original "Girls" was conceived of as an unscripted take on "Petticoat Junction."
As Burns imagines it, star Kendra Wilkinson — the former live-in galpal of Playboy mogul Hugh Hefner — is the pretty girl trying to make a go of it on her own. And her new fiancee, football star Hank Baskett?
"He’s the Cuban bandleader who now plays for the Eagles," Burns said.
Burns’ melding of sitcom mythology and modern reality TV seems to be working. "Girls" will begin its sixth season in the fall, while the premiere ratings for "Kendra" earlier this month had E! executives bouncing around their offices like, well, bunnies.
According to Nielsen, the first episode of "Kendra" drew 2.6 million viewers, the best for any E! premiere since "The Anna Nicole Show" in 2002. E! has already extended the show’s original order of eight half-hour episodes, adding a one-hour wedding special tied to Wilkinson’s Playboy Mansion nuptials this summer.
There will also be another episode dealing with Wilkinson’s recent announcement that she’s pregnant, Burns said. And while nothing’s official yet, it seems like a second season order of "Kendra" is now a formality.
"Given how well (the premiere) did, it would have drop pretty precipitously" for E! to pass on season two, Burns said. "And with Kendra pregnant, it would be irresistible to film that and make that a part of the story."
So why have viewers hopped to Wilkinson?
"She’s real. And I mean that in the best way," Burns said. "And she’s a guy’s chick. She’s a tomboy. That’s a big part of her appeal."
Burns said he "always knew Kendra would be the first to leave (‘Girls Next Door’) for a spinoff." The surprise, however, came in what kind of show that spinoff evolved into.
"We thought it would be about Kendra out on her own, away from the Mansion," he said. "She surprised us after we sold the show when she told us she was engaged. We didn’t even know she was dating!"
The development had E! executives "thrown into a tailspin," Burns said, since Bassett would now have to be a key part of "Kendra."
"We didn’t even know if he would be interested, or if he was telegenic," he said. "In the end, he said he wanted to do whatever was best for Kendra."
At first glance, the world of reality TV would seem to be a strange fit for Burns.
A noted documentarian, Burns’ previous small screen work had been split between producing history-themed specials for cable networks — including dozens of hours for A&E’s "Biography"– and developing new versions of Irwin Allen classic. Burns’ Synthesis Entertainment oversees the estate of the Allen library with Jon Jashni, and has come close to reviving shows such as "Time Tunnel" and "Lost in Space."
Burns seems happy producing all kinds of entertainment.
"At the end of the day, I’m not a snob. I love pop culture," he said. "I was such a child of the ’60s that I look at everything through the prism of that.
"It’s all about good storytelling," Burns adds. "Whether it’s ‘The Girls Next Door’ or ‘Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea’ or a documentary, it still has to be worth your time."
Meanwhile, Burns and his partners at E! and Fox TV Studios are already preparing for more "Girls Next Door" spinoffs.
Holly Madison "wants to do a show in Las Vegas," Burns said. And, he said, "E! has been talking to Bridget (Marquardt) about a spinoff" as well.
"These girls have become icons in their own right," Burns said.
Of course, the challenge for Burns is finding some new chemistry. The sixth season of "Girls Next Door" will feature three new Friends of Hef — Crystal Harris and twins Karissa and Kristina Shannon.
"They’re very different personalities," Burns said of the new trio.
Just to be safe, the original "Girls Next Door" will still appear in several episodes of the new season, even if they’re no longer dating Hefner.