Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Why I'd rather hang out with Bryan Mills from "Taken" than Jack Bauer of "24" any day

While going through my DVD collection, I noticed the seasons of “24” that I owned.  I realized that, even though I loved, and was obsessed with, the show while it was in first-run airings on Fox, I had no desire to relive the series in reruns, except for maybe Season 2.  After you know all the plot twists and surprises, there actually is very little left to go back and enjoy because you never get emotionally invested or engaged by any of the people on-screen.  The characters are all plot devices that, with some rare exceptions, were never carefully thought out or consistently written since they were all malleable to the whims of the writers.  There was never a clear vision to them because they were susceptible to doing 180-degree turns if the lazy writers dictated it.  (Season 2 was an exception because it was the only one where the plot and characters had a clear and natural progression, and you were as engaged by the personalities and the relationships on-screen as much as you were by the skillful plotting.)

The one character who seemed to have a clear vision, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), eventually became a pretentious bore and a drag to watch.  At first, it was appealing to watch a hero who was willing to make personal sacrifices for the greater good, who was ruthless in doing what he felt was right, blah, blah.  But, after awhile, he became a character who wallowed in self-pity due to the failures of the relationships in his life that were the consequences of his ruthless and short-sighted actions.  He was estranged from his daughter for much of the series, and spent way too much time obsessed with his “one true wuv,” drippy Audrey Raines (the mealy-mouthed Kim Raver).  He became an incredibly negative and heavy-handed character, and his “I-feel-the-weight-of-the-world-on-my-shoulders” act grew tiresome.  This was more damaging to the character and the show than the charges of fascism and brutality that were lodged against it by harsh critics.  It was a mistake to continually kill off main characters just for shock value and to narrow the focus of the series to Jack.  This meant that the emotions and tenor of the entire series rested on the unstable psyche of a character who was even moodier than Kay Hamilton (Andrea Leeds) in "Stage Door" (1937).  The show’s vision of Jack as a perpetually tragic figure makes it difficult to revisit it on DVD or reruns.  After awhile, it’s just not FUN to watch anymore.  I say this with great reluctance because I used to be such a devoted fan of the series. 

Despite some similarities, the Liam Neeson character in the thriller “Taken” is everything that Jack Bauer is not.  When I watched “Taken” for the first time in the theatres, I found myself comparing these two characters.  Bryan Mills, like Jack Bauer, is a ruthless agent who has participated in dangerous missions while serving his country and, as a result of focusing much of his attention on his career in the CIA, has an awkward relationship with his own teenage daughter.  (Interestingly, both men’s daughters are named Kim.)  But Bryan Mills has retained one quality that Jack Bauer has lost: hope.  Even with all he has experienced in the course of his dangerous career, he still finds things to enjoy in his life and is determined to repair his relationship with his daughter.  When the movie opens, we see Mills driving a cheap compact car and living in a dingy Los Angeles apartment.  Neeson does a wonderful job portraying Mills as an ordinary guy.  He works security at rock concerts for extra cash, and his attempt to impress his daughter with a karaoke player on her birthday is upstaged when his ex-wife’s wealthy husband gives her a horse.  But Mills hasn’t given up on himself and remains grounded and positive.  When his other former CIA colleagues show up for an impromptu BBQ, he still has the ability to relax and have a good time.  When the rock singer, whose life he has saved, offers to give his daughter singing lessons to repay him, he is clearly excited at the opportunity to give her something her rich stepfather cannot.  When his daughter is kidnapped while on vacation in Paris by Russian mobsters determined to sell her into white slavery, Mills is determined to get her back not merely because he loves her, and does not want to see harm come to her, but because he knows the potential still exists for good in his life as long as he can rescue her. 

Despite his brutality and ruthlessness, Liam Neeson infuses warmth, unexpected optimism, and a refreshing lack of pretense into Mills.  Neeson’s unconventional interpretation of the character helps to ensure that Mills never degenerates into sanctimonious self-importance the way Jack Bauer did.  At the end of “Taken,” when Mills rescues his daughter, he is finally able to give her something that her wealthy stepfather was unable to: her freedom.  Because the filmmakers of “Taken” paid as much attention to the logic and motivations of the characters as they did the action, this scene has more emotional impact than anything “24” or Jack Bauer were able to muster in 8 seasons.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Jessica Fletcher: TV's Greatest Female Character

As I was reading recent articles discussing the new Fall 2011 TV season, and how many of the new shows with female leads have them in highly sexualized roles, it made me think about my newest TV rerun obsession, “Murder, She Wrote.”  I must admit that when “Murder, She Wrote” originally ran on CBS in the 1980s and 1990s, I didn’t really follow it.  I didn’t think it was cool enough to watch the weekly adventures of elderly, widowed mystery writer Jessica Fletcher (played brilliantly by Angela Lansbury) as she traveled the globe, solving one murder after another.  And the TV promos highlighting the guest-stars each week gave it a “Love Boat/Fantasy Island” aura that made it seem even stodgier.  Now that I’m much older, and have a different set of values as to what constitutes entertainment than the people who follow the flock of reality shows, I have a greater appreciation for an hour-long, scripted drama with a strong, older female lead who was intelligent, assertive, principled, humane, gracious, and polite; who was involved with solving literate and thoughtfully-written cases; and who dealt with a gallery of victims and suspects every week played by veteran actors who were too often overlooked by a youth-obsessed industry.  She did it all while being attractive and stylish without being overly-sexualized or objectified in any manner.  In my humble opinion, I would argue that Jessica Fletcher is possibly the greatest female TV character of all time.

While watching the 12 seasons of “Murder, She Wrote” on DVD or Hallmark Channel reruns, I have noticed the gradual, steady development of Jessica Fletcher from the beginning to the end of the series (and through the four “reunion” TV movies that were made after the show ended).  Jessica started out as a widowed High School English teacher, slightly plump and plain-looking, who wrote her first mystery novel to keep her busy after her husband’s death.  She was not looking to create a new life or career for herself.  However, in the first scene of the pilot episode, when Jessica attends the rehearsal of a mystery play about to open in her sleepy Maine village of Cabot Cove, she guesses the identity of the killer before the play is over.  This simple, beautifully written scene, establishes in short-hand manner Jessica’s thoughtful ability to take in her surroundings and other people, and to be able to draw logical conclusions from what she has witnessed.  It also establishes her as a vibrant, alert individual who is ready to begin the next phase of her life.

As the series establishes Jessica’s street credentials as both a respected mystery writer, and a skillful amateur detective, Jessica’s personality slowly develops in unique ways over 12 years.  “Murder, She Wrote” was not a serialized-drama depicting the inner psyche, nor the trials and tribulations at home, of Jessica Fletcher.  It was clearly a plot-based drama where Jessica was in a different locale, involved with a different situation, each week.  In a sense, this structure allowed the show to take on an “anthology” feel per episode.  The show, like Jessica, was allowed to continue evolving and maturing.  Her adventures allowed her to travel the world and make new friends (or enemies) wherever she went.  Eventually, she abandoned the New England tweedy attire that defined her character in the early years, and developed an elegant, tasteful, stylish wardrobe that allowed her to cut a sleek, attractive, striking figure wherever she went.  (The costume designers on “The Golden Girls” could have taken cues from “Murder, She Wrote’s” costume designers on how to dress a mature woman in attractive clothes without being gawdy or tacky.)  Through the years, Jessica had occasional, mild romances with some of the distinguished guest stars on the show (including Arthur Hill, Len Cariou and Howard Keel) but these relationships did not define her and merely went to show how she was still attractive to men. 

Angela Lansbury richly deserved the 12 consecutive Emmy nominations the earned throughout the run of the series, just like the show itself deserved its nominations as Outstanding Dramatic Series during its first three seasons on the air.  The fact that Lansbury, nor the series itself, never took home the statuette reflects the screwy, flavor-of-the month values of Emmy voters, who seem to confuse shows with a “social significance” with anything of true value or lasting appeal.  (It is interesting to note how shows seen merely as entertainment like “Murder, She Wrote” and “Dallas” were overlooked during their runs, while “Hill Street Blues” and “LA Law” took home the Emmys.  Nevertheless, it is “Murder, She Wrote” and “Dallas” which are still watched and remembered today, not those Steven Bochco issues-oriented treatises.)  

Lansbury achieved the right blend of authority, gravitas, and whimsy, and created a character who was more assured and heroic than the now-cliched, one-dimensional “ass-kicking” action heroines of movies and TV during the last 15 years.  Lansbury, and her skillful team of writers, producers and directors throughout its 12 year run (who include the series’ original creators/producers Peter S. Fischer, William Link, and Richard Levinson; underrated TV directors like Walter Grauman, John Llewellyn Moxey, Seymour Robbie, and E.W. Swackhamer who were as good as any directors working in feature films; and Lansbury’s own family of talented artisans including her brother, writer/producer Bruce Lansbury, and son, director Anthony Pullen Shaw) all deserve kudos and credit for creating a consistent, dynamic vision of Jessica Fletcher as someone who outmatched her enemies with humanity, wit and intellect, rather than brute force.  In her own quiet way, Lansbury’s presence on the series could be as reassuring and authoritative as John Wayne. 

In later years, Jessica established a second home base, outside of Cabot Cove, by taking on a job in Manhattan teaching criminology at a local university, and living out of a stylish New York apartment.  Her circle of friends broadened to include spies, politicians, wealthy businessmen, artists, and designers of all nationalities and ethnicities.  But the character never became elitist or snooty, and never lost the common touch.  She looked as comfortable being home in Cabot Cove as she did circling the globe.  Eventually, law enforcement officials, who initially rejected her efforts to assist them in early seasons of the show, grew to welcome her participation in solving the mysteries as her reputation for solving crimes grew to a near-legendary status.  It is sometimes amusing to see certain episodes where the other characters are fawning over Jessica’s reputation as a writer and/or a detective.  How could one person accomplish so much?  But I think it was good for people to see an older person, especially a mature woman who, instead of being in her waning years, was actually entering the most rewarding phase of her life during her 60s and 70s, rather than relegating her to the sidelines as most media portrayals of the elderly (especially now) are susceptible to doing. 

What I also liked about “Murder, She Wrote” was that the show was smart enough to not allow Jessica to always be perfect or that she always had the correct perspective.  An interesting episode from 1987 called “When Thieves Fall Out” had the town of Cabot Cove up in arms because a mysterious stranger (played by John Glover) has arrived seeking justice and revenge.  Glover’s character served over 20 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit and is in Cabot Cove to ferret out the real culprit.  In the course of the episode, Jessica comes to the painful realization that the true perpetrators include her own friends and neighbors.  This leads to tragic consequences as she is forced to bring her own loved ones to justice.  At the end of the episode, Glover comes to her home to thank her and say goodbye.  Jessica, unnerved at how this stranger has caused tragedy and made her send her friends to prison, sanctimoniously says that she would prefer he didn’t come to say goodbye and wishes he didn’t come to Cabot Cove.  When Glover challenges her by saying “What would you have had me do?” it causes Jessica to stop and rethink her own sanctimony and double-standard on that particular case.  The episode ends with a more somber, reflective Jessica at the closing freeze-frame shot, not the usual jolly, almost comically goofy Jessica who laughs jovially at the end of almost every episode.  Usually, in television, the perspective of the main character is meant to reflect the “right” or “moral” attitude of the situation in the storyline.  For once, Jessica is forced to consider her own hypocrisy and bias favoring her friends, and that even her usual quest for justice has its limits. 

Much has been made about how CBS, in the final season of the show, moved “Murder, She Wrote” to Thursday nights at 9:00 PM from its Sunday 8:00 PM timeslot to go head-to-head with ratings juggernaut “Friends.”  This disasterous move effectively sounded the death knell for the series, and it ended in 1996 after 12 seasons.  However, looking at the episodes from that season, it is obvious that the writers and creative personnel were still at the top of the game and used this as an opportunity to challenge themselves and further broaden the scope of the show and Jessica’s character.  Because “Murder, She Wrote” was now bumping heads with a hot sitcom involving 20-somethings, many episodes that season involved a murder mystery among characters that were considerably younger than what Jessica was used to dealing with.  One episode dealt with Jessica investigating a murder involving the hip members of a hip Latin music group.  Another episode involved Jessica solving the murder of the lead singer of a contemporary rock band performing a benefit concert in Cabot Cove.  Another one had Jessica solving a murder that involved an illegitimate baby and a love quadrangle among the 20-something youths living in Cabot Cove.  The funniest, perhaps most bitingly-satirical episode that season had Jessica out in Hollywood solving the murder of the creator/producer of a popular “Friends-type” TV series called “Buds.”  

In these episodes, the young people Jessica becomes involved with no longer see her as an authority figure, nor address her only as “Mrs. Fletcher.”  Many of them refer to her by first name as she has become more their peer and their confidante than ever before.  This may have been an attempt by the show to broaden its appeal to younger viewers, by having storylines involving younger characters, but it works.  It helped expand the scope of the stories by involving Jessica with characters and situations that were fresh to the series, and also further broadened Jessica as someone who was in-tune with contemporary, modern society.  Nevertheless, I still smile during one episode where Jessica listens to music playing from a stereo and opines that it sounds like a song from Metallica.  But it reflected that Jessica was not stodgy and was someone still open to new ideas and experiences. 

If you watch “Murder, She Wrote” reruns, keep a look-out for two of my favorite episodes.  One is the very tense women’s prison-based segment “Jessica Behind Bars,” where Jessica solves a murder while she is held hostage in a prison locked-down during an inmate riot that features a motley cast including Vera Miles, Yvonne DeCarlo, Barbara Baxley, Eve Plumb, Susan Oliver, Mary Woronov, Linda Kelsey, Janet MacLachlan, and Margaret Avery.  The next is the two-part, near-epic “Death Stalks the Big Top” where Jessica solves a murder at a circus and her guest stars included Jackie Cooper, Martin Balsam, Pamela Susan Shoop, Lee Purcell, Alex Cord, Charles Napier, Florence Henderson, Greg Evigan, Mark Shera, Gregg Henry, Ronny Cox, Barbara Stock, Laraine Day, and Courtney Cox.  (Every time, I see these episodes, my jaw drops at the roll call of guest-stars listed during the opening credits.)  These episodes reflect the adventurous, vibrant spirit that “Murder, She Wrote,” and Jessica Fletcher, have to offer. 

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.