Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Reassessing "Charlie's Angels" 35 Years Later

Over the Labor Day weekend, the Universal HD channel aired a day-long marathon of “Charlie’s Angels” episodes.  With the new “Charlie’s Angels” series about to debut on ABC later this month (September 22nd), now is as good a time as any to take a second look at the series.  It is a show that has often been derided as being one of the worst examples of 1970s “Me Generation” jiggle TV.  And not without some justification:  episodes where the Angels go undercover in a women’s prison, as student flight attendants, as ersatz-Playboy bunny type cocktail waitresses, and in an apartment exclusively for prostitutes give credence to this notion. 
But, if you can look past it, this was one of the few successful TV shows or movies in the 1970s where the lead characters were almost exclusively female, in a decade where male “buddy” stories dominated the big and small screens.  Throughout the different cast permutations, the Angels were always depicted as mature, sophisticated, women.  They were never whining, squealing, cutesy, “girls.”  (Despite Charlie’s gently condescending reference to them as “three little girls” or “three beautiful girls” in the opening credits, depending on which season you are watching.)  The “Charlie’s Angels” movies produced by Drew Barrymore were much more troubling because the big-screen Angels were more often the victim of sexual innuendoes, trashy costuming, humiliating situations, boring boyfriends, and adolescent giddiness than their TV counterparts ever were. The Barrymore Angels were "empowered" in so far as they were willingly exploiting and degrading themselves.  Ironically, the TV Angels, produced by Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg, were comparatively much more dignified. 

Unlike most movies and shows centering on women, the series always depicted the Angels as competent, cooperative colleagues.  It avoided the cliche of portraying female colleagues as being competitive with each other.  The focus for the TV Angels was almost never on their personal lives, but on their work.  In years past, conventional female characters on television were usually concerned about family, marriage, relationships.  The few characters that did not fit into this mold included Anne Francis on "Honey West," Diana Rigg on "The Avengers," and Beverly Garland in the 1950s crime drama "Decoy."  Like those shows, "Charlie's Angels" did not fall into the TV cliche of focusing on the trials and tribulations at home of the regular characters.  In addition, even though Bosley came along and helped out in every episode, they often got the job done by themselves.  (Unlike “Police Woman,” where Angie Dickinson often needed the “big brother” trio of Earl Holliman, Charles Dierkop, and Ed Bernard to get her out of a jam.) 
With the exception of the two-part “One Love, Two Angels” episode in 1980—a misguided episode during the Shelley Hack season where the show unsuccessfully attempted something different by having Kelly (Jaclyn Smith) and Kris (Cheryl Ladd) compete for the affections of Patrick Duffy in a bizarre, awkward storyline where Kelly learns that she may be the long-lost daughter of wealthy hotelier Ray Milland—they weren’t romantic rivals with each other in any conventional sense.  The Angels were clean, wholesome “girl scouts” because romance or sex were rarely on their minds.  They were a distaff version of director Howard Hawks’s vision of competent professionals who worked as a cohesive whole to accomplish their goal or mission.
What really sunk the Angels, more than the purported sexism or sexual innuendos, were cliched scripts that rarely worked well as crime dramas.  It would have been interesting if the show had had better writers who could concoct better cases for them to solve than the lame ones they were often saddled with.  What the show coasted on was the chemistry of the cast members, and that aspect of it should never be underestimated.  Like the characters they portrayed, the cast of “Charlie’s Angels” were solid professionals who did good work every week.  Kate Jackson may have been stuck with the label of “the smart one” on the series, but she managed to infuse Sabrina with a humorously quirky, off-beat quality that complimented her tall, gangly persona.  (Her near-nerd appeal was heightened by having her drive the orange Ford Pinto, while her colleagues drove the more stylish Mustangs.)  She never became dry or boring as the Angels’s de-facto leader. 

Jaclyn Smith, despite popular opinion leaning towards Farrah Fawcett, is probably the most popular Angel.  People talk about her elegance and class, but what she really brought to Kelly Garrett was a disarming sensitivity.  The writers made Kelly an orphan who was always looking out for the underdog who needed to be protected, whether it was an autistic child (in one episode in Season 1) or an abused child (in Season 4) or a former juvenile delinquent-turned-Air Force airman she had previously mentored (in Season 3).  This quality made Smith the heart and soul of the series.  The show could survive the departure of Fawcett and Jackson, but couldn't continue without Smith. 

Farrah Fawcett may have been the sexy bombshell of the team, but she always projected a “big sister” quality that evoked warmth and affection among viewers.  It was no coincidence that, in the 1970s, men fell in love with her and women imitated her.  She was never off-putting or haughty the way, say, a Cybil Shepherd could be. 
Cheryl Ladd played Fawcett’s little sister Kris on the series, and early episodes reflected her character’s naivete and inexperience.  But she became one of the most serious characters on the show.  Ladd was probably the best actress on the show and she brought clear-headed gravitas to a lot of episodes that attempted to ground the series more in reality.  Whenever the show needed a scene where one of the Angels confronted another character in a pointed and direct manner, they often gave it to Ladd.  One of her best episodes was in Season 4, "Harrigan's Angel," where Ladd is paired with Howard Duff as a drunken, over-the-hill private detective who reminds her of her alcoholic father.  Ladd and Duff are very good together in that episode and evoked some genuine feeling and pathos.  Ladd was definitely the most underrated actress on the show.  She should also be commended for taking on the unenviable task of replacing a popular predecessor--Fawcett--and doing such an exemplary job that it could be argued that she was an improvement over Fawcett. 
Shelley Hack is arguably the weak link in the series’s cast.  Her one-season tenure as Tiffany Welles is awkward over 30 years later.  Perhaps it was a mistake to replace the earthy Jackson with a character designed to be a cool New Englander.  There’s a disconnected quality to Hack that prevents her from fully integrating with the rest of the cast.  Some of the dialogue in her episodes have the other cast members state how much they value her contribution.  It always felt like the producers and writers were overcompensating for Hack’s inability to successfully blend in with the show by having the characters state how important she is to them.  But what really sinks Hack is that she never seems confident or relaxed on the show.  She often gave a forced and stilted performance and that lack of assurance must have affected the audience, who abandoned the show in droves that season.  If she is to be commended for anything, it is that Hack does project intelligence and competence and her acting improves as the 4th season progresses.  By the end of that season, her gawky awkwardness becomes almost endearing.  (Hack redeemed herself a few years later with a very skillful performance in “The King of Comedy,” where Martin Scorsese uses her intelligence and coolness to her advantage.) 
To be fair, the writers during the Hack season attempted to “shake up” the show by violating the rules and ethos of the series in objectionable ways. There were many episodes featuring just one Angel working alone, while the others are only seen at the beginning and end to wrap up the story.  The single-Angel episodes that featured Hack left her alone to carry the shows and further highlighted her deficiencies.  There was an episode that season, "Fallen Angel," where Farrah Fawcett returned in a guest appearance, seemingly having fallen in love with a jewel thief played by Timothy Dalton.  This was used as a pretense to have her character end up fighting with her friends and sister and former colleagues.  This violated the rule of having the Angels always work in a cooperative manner with one another, and focused far too much attention on their personal lives instead of their cases. 

In addition to the aforementioned “One Love, Two Angels” episode, which violated the rule that the Angels would never be romantic rivals against themselves, another episode that season, “Toni’s Boys,” violated the rule that the Angels would always rescue themselves and never rely on a man to help them.  In that appalling episode, Barbara Stanwyck ran a detective agency staffed by three young men.  They are assigned to protect the Angels from someone out to kill them.  It was meant to be a backdoor-pilot to a potential series featuring Stanwyck and the men.  As a result, the Angels are sidelined like damsels-in-distress as the three toothless guys save them from the villains.  It is one thing to try and give individual scenes and episodes more gravitas and depth.  It is another thing entirely to try and completely redefine the series.  The writers seemed to have renounced what made the Angels unique and turned them into conventional characters.  The changes made that year give a bad name to the concept of "change-of-pace."  The confused writing, probably more than Hack’s uninspired performance, were the true villains that season.
There are some who debate whether Tanya Roberts is better or worse than Shelley Hack.  I’m in the former category.  Roberts blends in well with the cast and brings an air of levity and assurance to the show that had been missing during the Hack season.  Furthermore, the writers abandoned their efforts to experiment with the series, and the storylines returned to the format that had worked well for them in the past.  This was Roberts’s big break as an actress, and you can sense her enthusiasm in all of her performances on the series.  Unlike the later Tanya Roberts (who seemed somnambulistic in “Sheena” or “The Beastmaster” or even “That ‘70s Show”), the “Charlie’s Angels” version never fell down on the job.  In some episodes, you sense Jaclyn Smith and Cheryl Ladd feel revitalized by working with someone who hadn’t been burned out yet by the show.  At this stage in her career, Roberts appeared competent and promising.  With her raspy voice and off-beat New York-native quality, she had a quirkiness reminiscent of Kate Jackson.  In her debut episode, “Angel in Hiding,” Roberts has some big dramatic scenes when her mentor and friend Vic Morrow is murdered by the villains.  She handles these with confidence and makes you wonder what happened to her in later years when she worked in films and shows and seemed to have difficulty reciting the simplest dialogue. 
Probably the most important and underrated cast member of the show was David Doyle.  He has never gotten enough praise for his skillful performance as Bosley on the series.  In the first season, Bosley was officious and uptight, and was often at odds with the Angels working methods.  In later seasons, Doyle’s innate warmth started to shine through.  He was less bumbling and clumsy and became a reliable member of the team.  He never interfered with letting the Angels do their job, and helped out in vital ways.  He also did not turn into a male authority figure who always rescued the Angels.  Doyle’s relaxed, comfortable quality blended in well with his female cast members.  He complimented, rather than competed, with them.  Some episodes in later years even allowed Bosley a love interest, and Doyle handled those episodes with confidence and aplomb.  He richly deserved his Emmy nomination in 1977 for Best Supporting Actor in a dramatic series.  Doyle provided comedy, competence, and consistency to a show that suffered far too many cast changes in its 5 year run. 
Which brings me to the question:  Which cast ensemble was the best?  While popular opinion may favor the first season with Jackson, Fawcett, and Smith, I think seasons 2 and 3 (with Jackson, Smith, and Ladd) work best.  Fawcett had a larger-than-life quality that tended to draw attention to her  no matter what she was doing.  Ladd, because she was much more down-to-earth, blended in perfectly with the ensemble and the Sabrina/Kelly/Kris teaming feels more like a cohesive whole.  I will also stick my neck out to suggest that the the final season Smith/Ladd/Roberts ensemble may have been the 2nd-best cast on the series because that final trio also seemed very comfortable with each other on-screen. 

During the Univeral-HD “Charlie’s Angels” marathon, there was one episode whose darkness and seriousness shocked me.  “Angel Baby” from 1978 had the Angels investigating an illegal black-market baby ring.  Kelly went undercover as an unwed mother, Sabrina and Bosley posed as a rich couple wanting to buy a baby, and Kris posed as a girl who is desperate for money and agrees to sleep with a guy designated by the villain to become pregnant and sell her child.  There was nothing unusual about the basic storyline of the episode, but the handling of individual scenes made this one standout.  The scene where Kris meets with the desperate guy (he owes the villains money) that she is supposed to sleep with to become pregnant is handled in a surprisingly somber manner.  (There’s even a reviewer on IMDB who has commented similarly on this episode as well.)  The audience is unsure at how she is going to handle this unusual situation.  For once, the show drops its light-hearted mood and genuine emotions and intensity shine through.  Kris takes pity on this guy as she reveals her true identity and intentions to him and pleads with him for information on solving the case before letting him go.  It’s probably the best-acted scene in the entire series.  In a later scene, Kris seems truly shaken when she shoots a man for the first time.  I don’t want to overrate this episode, or the series as a whole, but in “Angel Baby” Ladd and company brought some welcome moments of gravitas that suggests at how legitimately good, rather than campy, the series could have been had it tried harder. 

2 comments:

  1. sorry but i disagree. the three episodes that highlighted shelley's character showed that given good material, she was perfectly capable of doing well indeed. those three solo episodes were among the very best of season 4. i also think shelley blended beautifully with jaclyn and cheryl. next to the original angels, this was the best-looking trio of the show. the girls looked comfortable with each other and made each other looked beautiful and glamorous indeed. i believe tanya was the fly in the ointment! you remembered wrong, actually it was in season 5 when writers routinely gave lines showing that julie was fitting in well with the team, imho that was to compensate for the fact that tanya did not turn out to be the savior of the show that producers thought she would be. she pretty much looked out of place. she was tolerable in the premiere episode but went downhill quickly. she obviously thought all she had to do was fit into the tiniest bikini. in the end, the show died because, well, shelley hack at the end of season 4 was much better than tanya was at the start of season 5 (or at any point of that season, for that matter).

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  2. i was just re-reading this and, you know, the show did survive farrah's departure. the show was hot and who could dislike cheryl in a bikini. but the audience had been abandoning this show starting in season 3 where episodes have become predictable and formulaic. did the show survive kate's departure? in the 2nd half of season 4, when there were better scripts for shelley hack (and as you did say, she as tiffany became endearing), it did seem the show could survive without kate. but as we all know, in the last season, the show obviously couldn't survive with somebody as vacuous and wooden as tanya. sad but true. and tanya's post-angels efforts confirmed what we suspected all along: that she couldn't act and that was how the show died, tanya's jiggling bikini notwithstanding. as for jaclyn and cheryl, well they weren't able to stem the declining ratings in both seasons 4 and 5, right?

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