Can I eat crow? Yes. I can. Can I admit being wrong? Absolutely. And I was wrong–desperately wrong, Mr. Spelling.
By Paul Mavis
A couple of years ago, I was assigned the first season of Charlie’s Angels to review (at a DVD site that should get cancer and die–they won’t let you live, they won’t let you breathe!), and…I sorta trashed it. I can’t remember exactly why producer Aaron Spelling‘s female detective show hit me so wrong then, but reading that old review back, there certainly was something up my ass that week….
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Thank God for the redemptive powers of over-the-air MeTV and free streaming Pluto. To my continued shock this past summer my metoo backlash guilty pleasure has been none other than checking out not one but two episodes of the Angels with whomever happens to be around the house: the younger kid (she likes the clothes), my older sons (figure it out…), and my wife (she likes the clothes and thinks Jaclyn Smith is a “lady”).
And almost immediately, something happened: I became a believer in Angels again. The show I loved as a horny pre-teen, was just as gloriously trashy and ridiculously entertaining some blank blank years later. How did it happen I don’t know. But it did. If you enjoyed that old review, and you view me as a fair-weather hypocrite, I don’t blame you. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m born again in the Spelling. So…let’s see how creative (my editor would say “lazy”…) I can be in transforming that old slam into a rave.
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If your rabbit ears can’t pick up MeTV, or you haven’t downloaded Pluto, you can jump on Amazon and order bargain outputer Mill Creek Entertainment’s release of Charlie’s Angels: Season 1, a 4-disc, 23-episode collection of the pop culture phenomenon’s premiere 1976-1977 season on ABC. Starring that charismatic, gorgeous trio of stylish private eyes Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett-Majors, and Jaclyn Smith, this first season of Charlie’s Angels created absolute pandemonium in America’s Bicentennial year, igniting outrage from many viewers offended by its “jiggle TV” insensibilities, sparking indignation from critics insulted by its glitzy-but-empty entertainment calories, and triggering outright fury from a lot of horny guys like my old man who couldn’t understand why it wasn’t broadcast seven nights a week.
Before my summer marathon, my 20-year-old son had never even heard of this show (I’m sorry, Farrah…), so a synopsis of Charlie’s Angels is apparently in order.
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Once upon a time there were three little girls…oh skip it. Three young, intelligent, attractive graduates of the Los Angeles Police Academy–super-sharp, well-scrubbed Sabrina Duncan (Kate Jackson), blonde, giggly tomboy Jill Munroe (Farrah Fawcett-Majors), and cool, serene wowzer Kelly Garrett (Jaclyn Smith)–are rescued from their second-class gender assignments within the “man’s world” of the LAPD by the mysterious Charles Townsend (voice talent of John Forsythe). Employing the women as operatives in his exclusive, tony private detective agency, the unseen Charlie only communicates with his “Angels” via speakerphone and his physical contact and general dogsbody, John Bosley (David Doyle). Each week, the “Angels” are given a tough, often deadly assignment requiring unique undercover skills, a varied wardrobe, and superior hold from their hair spray.
Anyone who’s read even a few of my TV reviews knows that I’m genetically predisposed to not only liking but championing a series like Charlie’s Angels. Its former notoriety as mindless “bubble gum” TV aimed at the lowest common denominator sounds–then and now–like an arbitrary, cranky judgment call that just begs this trash-loving TV viewer to differ: since when the hell does entertainment have to be “meaningful” to be “valid”? I’m an avowed fan of producer Aaron Spelling’s work, and for many viewers, Charlie’s Angels is his masterstroke of calculated genius: gorgeous women and fast, random action overlaid with a glossy sheen of titillation and exploitation. What could go wrong with that formula? And if that formula also inadvertently provides some intriguing stealth social context–in this case, the emerging roles of independent, liberated women in the 1970s television landscape–well…so much the better for Charlie’s Angels‘ critical rep, right?
Hmmm…wrong, because Charlie’s Angels, increasingly described and spoken of in these vaunted terms–vapid-yet-fun eye candy with something serious to say underneath–is most often none of those things. This desire by some hard-core fans to “legitimize” a mindless bit of twaddle by mining “deeper” significance from its pop culture time-line appearance and social context, is not only humorous in its failure, but also in the complete wrongheadedness of such a forced, so-called necessity. To be an “artistic” success, Charlie’s Angels needs to do nothing more than entertain. Period. That’s all. It wasn’t conceived as “art” (whatever the hell that is), nor was it intended to change the world.
It was manufactured by Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg to utilize pending contractual commitments from actors and writers with an eye on producing a TV series that would be successful at selling advertising for the networks. That’s it. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with such an enterprise, on any level, if it simply works. If Charlie’s Angels is dumb and yet I have fun watching it, it’s as valid as a Picasso in my book. There’s no need to artificially prop it up.
The most frequent intellectual defense of Charlie’s Angels I read is that it was the first example on network television of smart, independent, sexy women who could, with both brains and brawn, not only hold their own but dominate in a “man’s world.” Well, Charlie’s Angels certainly wasn’t the first TV show to do that. Over on NBC, smart, ballsy, knee-weakeningly hot Angie Dickinson had been busting heads for a couple of years on Police Woman, while for many, British import Mrs. Emma Peel from The Avengers, that Bondian marvel of leather and English rose good-looks courtesy of the incomparable Diana Rigg, was the unsurpassed example of the wholly feminine, independent action hero. One can go back even further than The Avengers to none other than Aaron Spelling’s earlier Honey West, with the luscious Anne Francis, where the fiercely autonomous private eye owned her own agency, slept with whomever she pleased, and dispatched male villains left and right with a well-aimed karate chop.
As for making a case that Charlie’s Angels is some kind of teachable feminist primer, you’re going to run into some pretty big obstacles along the way selling that one. It’s true that as late as 1976, the vast majority of roles that women had portrayed on television up to that date, had been domestic ones–not exactly an admirable picture of diversity…but also not the crime against humanity that uber-feminists would have you believe, either (who buys that phony crap anymore, that the domestic element of any woman’s life is the one that’s the most soul-deadening and pointless?). So seeing three determined, intelligent, and single women in Charlie’s Angels, free of domestic entanglements and succeeding in their chosen profession, was in and of itself noteworthy, to a point, in 1976 network television.
But again…Kelly, Jill, and Sabrina were hardly the first examples of such successful women; in the few years preceding Charlie’s Angels, Marlo Thomas was an aspiring actress, Mary Tyler Moore was a TV producer, Doris Day was a journalist, Diahann Carroll was a nurse, Shirley MacLaine was a reporter/photographer, Sandy Duncan was a student/actress/advertising associate, Karen Valentine was a teacher, a divorced Valerie Harper was a designer, Cloris Leachman was a photographer’s assistant, Lee Grant was a secretary, Diana Rigg was a spy and later a department store fashion coordinator, Lindsay Wagner was a bionic spy, Anne Meara was a lawyer, and Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick were “snoop sister” mystery writers, in their prospective series (of course I’m going to include those two delightful old bats).
As to how the so-called “feminist” characters were portrayed in Charlie’s Angels, many critics at the time pointed out–including two of the complaining leads, Fawcett-Majors and Jackson–that these characters’ sexual attractiveness was pushed front and center by the producers ahead of any sleuthing abilities these private dicks may have possessed (Jackson in particular was distressed at the direction her classy detective series almost immediately took).
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In addition to any crime-solving skills, Charlie’s “Angels” more often than not used their erotic allure to daze and confuse the various male henchmen and master criminals that were TKO’d by the detectives’ good looks–a technique that one could legitimately say was empowering if Charlie’s Angels actively commented on this irony, instead of simply exploiting it for puerile T & A thrills (when the sublime Jaclyn Smith flashes that perfect bikini body about ten times this season, it’s not in the service of saying how dumb men are and how powerful women are…it’s so the 1976 male viewers can get off, while the female viewers roll their eyes).
Besides…what little girl (or grown-up woman) back in 1976 took Charlie’s Angels as a stealth feminist manifesto? I see that observation often when I read reviews and TV histories that mention the show (just listen to those unintentionally hilarious interviews with headcase Drew Barrymore, when she was flogging those dreadful movie versions of the show). However, I can’t help but feel those generalizations are coming from writers and pundits who really need Charlie’s Angels to be about what they want it to be about, extrapolating out nice-sounding, “important” theories for their political agendas, rather than acknowledging how Charlie’s Angels actually plays: as pretty but disposable entertainment.
Anyway…aren’t most women too smart to take this kind of fantasy seriously? Charlie’s Angels was a guys show first and last, despite protestations to the contrary, a standard detective series given a new twist by featuring not one, not two, but three hot babes with the then-novel approach of putting as much of their skin on display as possible, just for the sheer sake of such exhibition. Sure women and little girls watched Charlie’s Angels, but if my wife and several of her friends are to be believed in my admittedly narrow, unscientific poll, they watched Charlie’s Angels not for life lessons on how to succeed in a still male-dominated America, but for the same reasons they played with that most hated toy to the arch feminist, the Barbie: they tuned into Charlie’s Angels for the hair, the clothes, and because the actresses were so pretty (guess why the producers didn’t cast plain-looking girls for these three parts?).
It was fantasy to those little girls, pure and simple, not politics or sociology, and they knew it was fantasy. Even as a little kid in 1976 my wife knew on that deep, essential, unfathomable no-bullsh*t level that most women possess, that Charlie’s Angels was essentially bunkum…while I still believe somewhere in the recesses of my TV-saturated brain that were I to score a private eye license today, my life could possibly resemble Joe Mannix‘s. Guys are forever dopes.
Which brings us to today and Charlie’s Angels, and why it can’t possibly “matter” as much now as it did during those incredibly innocent days of 1976–“innocent” at least in terms of network television. Charlie’s Angels came out right on the cusp of mainstream network television’s first tentative baby steps into vulgar crassness, back when it was rather innovative (questions of artistic worth aside) to not only feature three women as the leads in a series, but to also focus on their physical bodies as primary dramatic elements of the storylines. Unless you lived through that transition in America’s popular mainstream culture, you cannot possibly understand how innocent the media was back then.
That isn’t to say people were innocent (they knew everything you know today, and they always have); however, viewers’ television shows back then still pretended they didn’t know everything, so the sight of Farrah Fawcett-Majors’ erect nipples showing through every flimsy shirt she wore in seemingly every single one of her scenes, was truly groundbreaking in terms of television’s evolving sexuality. Remember, this was a time when about the only chance you had to see a woman in a boring one piece bathing suit on TV was once a year on the Miss America pageant. There was plenty of porn out there…but you had to be an adult, and you had to buy it at a newsstand or see it in a grindhouse. Sex may have been talked about on the envelope-pushing All in the Family, but Charlie’s Angels‘ “jiggle TV” made no bones (sorry) about presenting female pulchritude for the sheer sensual pleasure of enjoying it, free of any encumbrances like “drama” or “plot” or “characterization.” This drove a lot of TV critics and parents and church groups and social observers absolutely nuts, decrying the inevitable decline of standards on network TV (and Western civilization while we’re at it)…while it drove up incredibly high Nielsen ratings.
Of course now the titillation factor for Charlie’s Angels has been necessarily blunted. No matter what the decade, men and women are always going to respond to the beauty of the three leads here (and yes, even though she’s often left out of these kinds of discussions, in her own super-clean, well-scrubbed angularity, Kate Jackson is just as attractive as the lush, smoldering Jaclyn Smith and the sun-kissed blonde babe Farrah Fawcett-Majors). However, after decades of increased de-sensitivity to television’s ever-more explicit eroticism, there’s no getting around the fact that just the sight of Farrah’s nipples, or Jaclyn’s perfect posterior (can you tell who my favorite “Angel” is?), or Jackson’s serious little face, isn’t enough to make Charlie’s Angels notorious anymore.
The series’ pilot episode, Charlie’s Angels, which premiered on March 21, 1976 to huge numbers on The ABC Sunday Night Movie, was written by pros Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts (White Heat, Captain Horatio Hornblower, Midnight Lace), and it’s quite apparent it differs sharply from the series proper in terms of tone (more traditionally elegant, if you will, in terms of its unfolding mystery) and execution (veteran TV helmer John Llewellyn Moxey keeps the pace measured, compared to the more peripatetic series). The highlight is obviously the first shot of Smith, emerging like Venus in a white bikini, her Wella Balsalmed hair cascading perfectly to one side. Co-Charlie flunky, David Ogden Stiers (in a too stuffy, square performance) is the sole casualty between this pilot and the series’ debut, while David Doyle’s Bosley will get increased screen time as the series evolved.
The series opener, Hellride, features tighter cutting and pacing from director Richard Lang (the first of many helmers for this first of many troubled seasons, where behind-the-scenes turnover was rampant), while the stock car racing milieu is suitably grabby for the male viewers. Farrah’s hair is in full blossom, while unseen Charlie’s predictably groaning double-entendres set the smutty tone (“Some deft manipulation before I’m standing as erect as ever,” Charlie-with-a-bad-back states…before some bimbo shtups him–this got by the censors how?). Spelling’s lack of fun has-been stars in supporting roles this first season–his trademark in shows like The Love Boat and Fantasy Island–is distressing (I have to be content with Bullitt‘s Don Gordon?), but all is forgiven when Smith dons that red, white, and blue cropped halter top–a seminal moment (sorry) in my adolescent development.
The Mexican Connection features the first of many good guys whom an Angel falls for…only to find out he’s a rat, legally and emotionally. Our first “star” shows up (Cesare Danova), as do Farrah’s nipples: both are stand-outs. The early notoriety of Charlie’s Angels continued with the perverse Night of the Strangler, where the “Ragdoll Killer” (hee hee) kills his victims with a clown doll (inspired). The Angels watch an S & M porno (Jill tells Charlie, “There’s some great chains, if you’re into chains, Charlie,”), always proper Sabrina makes a rape joke after being attacked (“If he had been Robert Redford, I might have said, ‘Defile away!'”), and Burt from Soap wears a denim leisure suit. You could have a drinking game for all the double entendres in this Pat Fielder scripted outing (Bosley joins in with, “You sure look like a ‘Johnson’ to me,” after Charlie opens with, “I’m going to be Down Under; I plan on being up to my ears in the one I’m locked in on,”–jesus, nobody at ABC got that???).
There’s no question that Charlie’s Angels‘ claim to fame was sealed with the notorious Angels in Chains (the ratings were so high for this entry that ABC prez Fred “The Man with the Golden Gut” Silverman reportedly seriously considered re-running it as many times as he could before the ratings fell below a forty share). It’s the one everyone talks about, and yes, it delivers some TV-worthy “women in prison” delights (the delousing is a particularly low, delicious point in 70s TV). It may be a homogenized, sanitized version of drive-in fare like The Big Bird Cage or Caged Heat, but there are definite delights. Farrah’s nipples are huge here (hey, don’t get on me for pointing [sorry] them out…they’re obsessively featured in each episode), and a sex party happens at The Waltons‘ house (as if that hadn’t happened already…). “I’ll try not to bruise her tender skin too hard,” is the quote of the year.
Target: Angels feels like the first episode (was it shot that way?), with lots of s’plaining to do about the Angels (Smith is sleeping with a pre-mustachioed Tom Selleck–surely a mating of eagles, while Jackson was married at one point??). Weirdly, Selleck walks away at one point and is never heard from again, while the episode’s true horror is revealed midway through: Sabrina’s father is the world’s worst actor, John Agar. Not to be outdone, Jaclyn’s nipples make an appearance here. The Killing Kind unfortunately features some desultory dialogue supporting a tepid mystery. Doyle is funny as a model, and future Stroker Ace director Hal Needham executes a boring car chase.
To Kill an Angel actually shows that with some care, Smith could have handled stronger material on the show…had anyone been interested in that (she’s quite sweet with that little boy). Always fun to see The Waltons‘ Robert Donner (he gets it on The Rotor), while Farrah’s more sculpted, more professionally coiffed ‘do debuts, to fab results. Lady Killer should have been an easy knock-out–someone is killing Playboy Bunny knock-offs–but it’s a stilted affair. Hugh O’Brien may be the big star this go-around (god he looks embarrassed to be here), but no 70s television series is complete without at least one appearance by one of my favs, Alan Fudge (we knew him because that silly name was always easy to spot in the credits). We get to see Farrah’s beach house (sweet), and an exploding tennis ball (sweeter). Bullseye is one of the worst offerings this season as the military base setting provides zero opportunities for the girls to strip down to something…less complicated (why in god’s name would you put Farrah’s ‘do–the mythical “Golden Fleece” that Jason and his Argonauts sought…under a goddamned helmet??). L.Q. Jones is appropriately sleazy, though. When delightful old battleaxe Nora Marlowe gets to be the sexiest thing in a Charlie’s Angels episode, you know someone picked the wrong set-up.
Consenting Adults features Farrah on a skate board, being chased by the bad guys; no wonder she wanted out of this series. The Seance is another good showcase for Smith, who’s quiet and vulnerable–and then quiet and murderous–in this standard hypnotism outing. How do you almost screw up a roller derby episode? Well…in Angels on Wheels, when they spend so much goddamned time off the track when we should have had a Kansas City Bomber redux here. Farrah, though, looks like she’s having fun out there, bombing away. And you haven’t lived until you see a snide, fey Dick Sargent attempt “lascivious cowboy business magnate.” Former mid-level MGM star (Spelling’s favorite kind of has-been) Fernando Lamas shows up in Angel Trap, and he’s seen to good advantage in some surprisingly effective, low-key romantic scenes with Farrah (just to make sure the audience likes this assassin…they give him a little lost kitty to take care of).
In one of the best straight episodes of the season, written by Brian McKay and directed by The Rookies‘ Georg Stanford Brown, The Big Tap-Out is the kind of episode that should have been routine for Charlie’s Angels: a convincingly elaborate scam involving card sharks and a long con. Very nice, with creepy Richard Romanus (Valerie Harper’s Night Terror) getting his in the end (Doyle is a stitch, and Farrah hangs right with him, as loud-mouthed horse buyer Jimmy Joe Peepers and his spoiled bride, Cinderella). That’s Tony Giorgio as the ace card mechanic. Unfortunately, the sludgy Angels on a String follows, featuring Jackson having the vapors over…Theodore Bikel (the hell?). When Jackson saw that call sheet, she should have gotten on the horn with her agent pronto–how the hell was she supposed to have survived against Farrah’s nipples and Smith’s perfect ass (another clue…) when she was forced to romance the likes of folk singer Bikel? A disaster of an episode.
Dirty Business is just that: a familiar outing tarted up with some barely-submerged smut. The girls are investigating an arson attempt at a film lab…where pornos are secretly shot (at one point, we’re shown the fingernail-scratched back of a hunky shepherd whom Little Bo Peep…and possibly that dwarf Friar–has marked up). This time it’s Farrah who falls for a good/bad guy: Jimmy Caan wannabe Alan Feinstein. Much better is The Vegas Connection, where we get a pre-Showgirls slime-fest featuring sweaty Michael Callan at his greasiest as a shady casino showroom dance choreographer (Bosley finally gets some action, with Brooke Bundy). Terror on Ward One shows signs of the producers trying to get a bit more serious with this story of a killer on the loose in a hospital. Double entendres are kept to a minimum, and the “Angels”‘s nurses uniforms are strictly buttoned up (boo). They blow the ending, though, making the capture of the culprit a joint effort…instead of letting Jackson kick his ass (she looks believably ready). Always great to see Dexter Riley’s pal, Schuyler (Michael McGreevey).
Dancing in the Dark, with its still-topical disco dancing backdrop, should have been more about the moves, and less about this tired story of blackmailing schemers. Jackson way overdoes the dorky socialite, while future Jaclyn Smith defiler Dennis Cole states, “I like them unstable. I do wonders for unstable women,” to which his future wife replies, “Either you have a very droll sense of humor, or I’m more stable than I ever realized,” (couldn’t Smith tell there was something wrong there?). The best line: “I’m aware of the disco mania…I don’t really like it myself.” Amen, suave Eurotrash villain John Van Dreelen. Amen.
I Will Be Remembered has Ida Lupino starring in a cross between Gaslight and Sunset Boulevard, with very little to recommend it beyond that legs-for-days outfit of Smith’s (Lupino, fiercely talented in her heyday…annoyingly whines a lot here). Angels at Sea is one of the better efforts this season, even though the producers have obviously started to listen to the actresses’ complaints and 86ed the T & A (they’re on a boat…and nobody’s in a bikini?). Some genuine if mild suspense at the end, when the “Angels” are dismantling some bombs, while guest star Frank Gorshin steals the show with a long bit where he runs through his greatest celebrity impersonations, including uncanny versions of Richard Burton, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. Oh, and Sabrina’s death threat note–“I love you. I’ll prove it. You won’t like it. I don’t care,”–is my new mantra for everything.
Finally, Farrah bids farewell to the series (until ABC bends her arm and makes her come back in a couple of years) in The Blue Angels, a disappointing effort that fails to capitalize on the set-up of Bosley and Jill running a shady massage parlor (um…I generally like my sleaze a little dirtier than this). Always great to see Ed Lauter, though…even with a toupée. Scoring the highest Nielsen rating of its run in this first season (a remarkable 5th most popular show on TV), Charlie’s Angels could only go down…when Farrah skipped town.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.