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Bunnies and Stewardesses: Fall TV’s Racy Slant

From the ”Charlie’s Angels“ revamp to ”The Playboy Club,“ T&A TV is back. TheWrap takes look at this interesting programming bounce

Here's some good news about the upcoming fall TV season: There will be a marked increase in the number of actresses populating new series!

Now, the other news: They appear to have packed pretty light when it comes to wardrobe.

From the tight uniforms sported by the stewardesses on ABC's "Pan Am" and the Alphabet Network's sexy re-commissioned "Charlie's Angels" crime-fighters, to the fluffy-tailed servers of NBC's "The Playboy Club," the fashion trend of the season appears to be flesh, and plenty of it.

Call it the resurgence of Jiggle TV, a titillating genre that briefly blossomed in the 1970s with the original "Charlie's Angels," before giving way with the exit of "Baywatch." 

Also read: Gloria Steinem: Boycott "The Playboy Club"

Though none of the series have yet to debut, the trend of new shows featuring female leads in little clothing and subservient positions has already been met with criticism.

Gloria Steinem, who gained notoriety by going undercover as a bunny at the Playboy Club in New York in 1960s and writing an exposé about the working conditions, has said that she's hoping for a boycott of NBC's "The Playboy Club," claiming, "It normalizes a passive-dominant idea of gender. So, it normalizes prostitution and male dominance."

Christine Baranski, co-star of "The Good Wife," has similarly chimed in, telling New York Magazine, "I'm rather appalled that they're now making television shows about Playboy bunnies and stewardesses … I think, 'Really? Haven't we gone past that, well past that?'"

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Apparently not. But why now, in particular, does there seem to be a resurgence in flesh-centric TV fare?

Certainly, AMC's "Mad Men" seems to have loosened the jar lid with its highly successful exercise in flesh-friendly, misogyny-laced nostalgia.

And it might be no coincidence that the upcoming series — like "Mad Men" — all have retro elements to them. ("The Playboy Club" and "Pan Am" are both set in the 1960s, while "Charlie's Angels" is a revamp of a 1970s Jiggle TV progenitor.)

Martha M. Lauzen, Ph.D., the executive director for Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, suggests that, particularly in dour financial times, male viewers — not to mention the overwhelmingly male decision-makers at the networks — might be looking to retreat into less complicated, more comforting times.

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"In times of economic and social upheaval and difficulty, nostalgia and a longing for an era when life seemed simpler tend to bloom," Lauzen said.

That could be especially true in an era when men — at least the ones not on TV, anyway — find themselves losing economic and social ground to the fairer sex.

"As women continue to gain economic, social and political power, there is always some sort of backlash, a desire to put women 'back in their place,'" Lauzen adds. "These programs may reflect that type of wishful thinking."

Naturally, those involved with the series have a different take on the matter. At the Television Critics' Association press tour earlier this month, "Pan Am" star Christina Ricci dismissed cries of sexism, claiming that her series provides "a really great message for young girls and women … [Air travel] is something that's exciting for these women. We're as excited as the passengers are."

Never mind that the Pan Am stewardesses were subjected to mandatory girdle-wearing and weigh-ins. Or that the trailer for the series prominently features a clip of one of the stewardesses stripped down to her bra as she frantically changes clothes in the back of a taxi. (Story continues below this "Pan Am" trailer.)

Similarly, Amber Heard, who portrays Maureen on "The Playboy Club," praised the original Playboy Bunnies as pioneers of women's lib.

"[They] wanted their own fortune and they went out into the work force doing what they wanted to do," told E! Online. "I could not be more empowered by that example, and I think denying women their sexuality is just as chauvinistic, if not worse."

"Playboy Club" creator Chad Hodge told TheWrap that, while his series may be populated by scantily clad women, it's the human element at the center of the show that he's most concerned about.

"Certainly I never thought about the sexuality or nudity as being in any way front or center for this show," Hodge says. Having interviewed several former Playboy bunnies in preparing for the series, Hodge adds, "My only job as I see it is to tell the story of these women that I've spoken to — to tell those stories."

Like Heard, Hodge asserts that the Playboy Club, rather than a den of exploitation, offered women empowerment at a time when options were limited at best.

"[Working at the club] gave women more opportunity because of the money," Hodge says. "There were just a million ways that women could climb out of the confines of their lives."

Nonetheless, Hodge says that, going into the project, "I might have had the same prejudice that some people have now about the Playboy Club." He also says that the concerns of the Gloria Steinems of the world will be broached on the series.

"The bunnies themselves talk about these things in the show — is this degrading, or is this empowering?" Hodge notes. "These are things that will be addressed in the show."

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A lofty sentiment — but one that might fall, um, flat when it comes wrapped in a skin-tight, cleavage-baring Playboy Bunny outfit. 

Whether "The Playboy Club" and its ilk serve as crass exploitation or lessons in empowerment wrapped in an attractive package, Lauzen said that there will probably be more of the same coming, particularly if the current trend toward fewer women behind the scenes continues.

"The percentage of women working as writers on broadcast programs plummeted last season, declining from 29% in 2009-2010 to 15% in 2010-2011," she said. "The industry remains mostly male, and these programs may reflect the behind-the-scenes gender ratios."

Looking at the credits for the shows in question, Lauzen noted, "many of the important behind-the-scenes roles on these shows are filled by males."

Indeed, Drew Barrymore's executive-producer role on "Charlie's Angels" stands as a prominent exception to the general rule — along with Nancy Ganis, a former Pan Am stewardess who serves as an executive producer of "Pan Am."

ABC declined to comment to TheWrap for this story.

So can viewers look forward to — or look askance at, depending on the perspective — reboots of "Three's Company," "The Love Boat" and other jiggle-TV mainstays of yore?

Maybe. But if the new crop of plots and character development end up as skimpy as the outfits, audiences just might decide to bounce elsewhere.