Sunday, April 24, 2016

Charlie’s Angels 1:4 “Angels in Chains”

Airdate: 10/20/76

A woman hires Charlie to locate her sister, Elizabeth, who disappeared from the Pike County prison where she had been incarcerated and presumably been granted parole. The Angels go undercover at the Big House by inviting arrest (easy to do in the corrupt Pike County), and begin to snoop around to discover any clues regarding the missing woman. As they discover that Elizabeth was ultimately shot and killed after an attempted escape (following her assault by a loathsome guard), they also reveal a secret brothel within which many of the comelier inmates were impressed for service, including a woman, Linda, who gets a job as Charlie’s secretary once the corrupt goings-on at the prison are revealed. 

Fabulous send-up of the Girls-Behind-Bars exploitation subgenre, abetted nicely with plenty of campy Angels cheesecake and equally campy supporting characters, from the portly redneck sheriff to the sketchy, smarmy guard. Every staple of the genre is covered too – the stripping down scene (the hands-down highlight), the cafeteria riot, the field labor, the lights-out at night, and, of course, the escape through the bayou in chains (isn’t this just outside of L.A.?). If you’ve seen Chained Heat or Cell Block Sisters, you’re already on the right wavelength, and the casting  of cult star Mary Woronov as the ornery and ambiguously Sapphic warden Maxine clearly indicates that the producers are in on the joke.  
The brothel subplot is part of this genre too, but I was expecting it to be linked to he main storyline of the missing girl; I thought for sure she’d be the key to he Angels’ discovery of this prostitution ring. But no matter – to complain about incongruity on this episode is like rebuking Big Bad Mama for lack of character development. Ya gets what ya pays for; enjoy and eat your popcorn.

In addition to Woronov, there are plenty of other guest stars here, some who would go on to even brighter lights. Kim Basinger is Linda, one of the
inmate/hookers, and even this early she’s playing the swollen-eyed girl in trouble, desperately pleading for succor to escape her dreadful condition. Prolific actress Christina Hart is another prisoner; classic TV fans would know her best as Roper’s niece on an early episode of Three’s Company. And Lauren Tewes is Christine, the client; the following year she would land her most famous role as Vicki, the cruise director on The Love Boat, another Aaron Spelling production. (The two shows would cross over in 1979 on a special ep of Angels.) 

The trivia section of imdb reveals that exterior shots of “the house” (bordello) are of the homestead on The Waltons. Random usage of stock footage or inside joke? You decide. 

Overall, great fun! Hoping the show lets its hair down like this again.

Client: Christine Hunter

Plot Difficulty Level (scale of 10): 3 (piece of cake)

Rating: ***1/2

Stretching the boundaries of 10PM permisiveness

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Charlie’s Angels 1:3 “Night of the Strangler”

Airdate: 10/13/76 

Kelly is a dead ringer for Dana Cameron, a murdered woman whose parents have enlisted Charlie’s services to find out whodunit. The suspects:

  • Kevin St. Clair, the head of a modeling agency who was having an affair with Dana.
  • Michelle, Kevin’s wife, who clearly has a motive.
  • Jesse Woodman, a businessman whose bank St. Clair’s agency appears to be heavily indebted to.
  • Alec Witt, a shady photographer.

The girls go undercover to do the usual searching, but things get more complicated when Michele turns up dead, leaving only a mysterious clown doll by her side (I hate it when that happens). Now all eyes are on Kevin… then Jesse… then Alec, but no clues seem to help, not even after a sad sack Dutchman, befriended by Jill, turns up dead in an apparent suicide, with a confession note (and, you guessed it – a clown). But after some careful fiduciary inspection, Charlie notes that a heavy life insurance policy had been taken out on Michelle, and cashed in shortly after her death. Aha! It was all three of the male suspects in on the dirty business, and off to jail they go, hoho.

I want that outfit.
A true murder mystery, although given that it involves three strangulations, one committed by a former amateur pornographer, it gets seemlier, and grislier, as it progresses. The story gets really uncomfortable when Kelly, after the aforementioned killer tries to rape her, jokes lightheartedly about the presumably traumatic experience with Jill – clearly such matters were not treated with the gravity we accord them today. But back then, it was all fair game for television escapism.
This one wasn’t too hard to follow, but I do have one real problem with the killers’ motives. Okay, St. Clair murders his wife for the life insurance money, but the other two killings are just meant to make it look like it wasn’t an isolated incident? And the offing of the Dutch guy – meant to throw the investigation off with a fake confession? I don’t know about all this; it does seem pretty hard to swallow. And anyways, why did they need the life insurance contrivance anyway? Couldn’t we just have a mystery surrounding Dana’s death and the possible suspects? (St. Clair, his wife, and selected employees at the agency…) Yet another Angels instance of too many plot threads spoiling the plot. Less is more, guys.

Beware of strangers bearing clowns.
Longtime TV/movie character actor Richard Mulligan is a howl as St. Clair, sporting some of tackiest 70s duds this side of Ralph Furley. And don’t miss the poolside catfight between Michelle and Kelly, which ends, you guessed it, with one of them going into the pool. And speaking of Kelly, Jaclyn Smith definitely holds the record, so far, of being the most scantily clad Angel, whether in a skimpy nightie, midriff-baring T-shirt or basic white bikini. Y’know… just for the record.

Plot difficulty index: 5. (Thank God; still reeling from last week’s head-spinner.)

Rating: **1/2


Charlie’s Angels 1:2 “The Mexican Connection”

Airdate: 9/29/76

The Angels get the skinny on a plane crash – an airline possibly hijacked by drug smugglers. Charlie’s client is the pilot, who thinks it was all part of a heroin smuggling ring. His buddy, Jim, becomes a liaison (and smoochie) for Sabrina, while the owner of the plane company, Frank Barton, might be the smuggling culprit as he is a rival of Mexican drug kingpin Escobar. Charlie notes that Baron’s daughter, Maria, loves swimming, so he sends Jill to get friendly on this count for more info there.  And bikini-clad Kelly goes undercover as a teacher to get the dirt on Barone at poolside champagne, which, as we all know, is the best way to get information from anyone.

Sabrina’s initial meeting with Jim confirms that Frank is in on the smuggling, but that due to a weird contract, the pilots/stewardesses (Dan, Laurie) are powerless to press charges or investigate.  But
Sabrina’s sixth sense alerts her that something’s “not right” about Jim – perhaps confirmed by his odd nonchalance to Bartone’s ire over Escobar’s admittance to the crash that started the whole thing. Jill goes even deeper; her friendship with Maria turns up distrust and resentment. Bartone later reveals further complicity: he refuses to shut down a heroin lab to make up for loss. (Sabrina and Jim Taylor go to the lab, which apparently is covered as a wine producer, and shuts them down.) 
Now, apparently, Escobar is upping the ante on the smuggling/crashing thing – the Angels think the crash was meant to feign incapacity on Bartone’s part, and to move in on them with Barone’s own druglords. (I think.) Jill gets caught in the wine cellar; she reveals herself to be Escobar’s agent, and sets up a meeting for both druglords to meet at a marina in L.A. Escobar turns out to be Bosley, and a shootout ensures that Bartone gets his just desserts. But who really is Escobar? Turns out to be Jim, the pilot, but don’t worry – the Angels git him with their handbags. Phew! 
Dude, some 70s pornstar wants his mustache back
Good Lord, you’re gonna have to take some fast friggin; notes during the Angels’ debriefing scene on this one. Take the most complicated Bond dossier and toss in a John LeCarre plot, and you have a general idea of what I had to go through to figure this one out. (My summary above is what I think happens, but I’m definitely not 100% sure.)  I actually had to see this one twice, to catch all the rapid-fire plot info, and I’m not entirely convinced all of it fit together, either. It makes me wonder – did 1976 audiences get it all, with no rewind capabilities, at 10:00 on a late summer midweek night? Doubtful – probably just eye candy in most households.

But having said that, it’s better than the other extreme: stupid simple-minded fare, the likes of which are in no short supply on today’s TV/cable
/Internet landscape. And also, is it any great sin to put the viewer to work?  As crazily complex as this storyline is, it certainly didn’t bore me, owing to the usual assortment of teeth-gnashing villains and piquant supporting characters of dubious motive. And speaking of, ya gotta love that twist ending (I didn’t cal it), which plays up the “Whom can you trust?” theme in the great, grand Agatha Christie tradition. Too aggrandizing a comparison? C’mon, isn’t that what we’re looking at here: old time murder mysteries, replacing British mansions and teacups with L.A. streets and sun tan lotion?

Let’s start a new feature, a plot comprehension difficulty rating, only because I’m curious how the other episodes compare to this one in that regard. I’m calling this one a…
PCDR: 10 (easily)

I hope they get easier. Don’t have time for multiple viewings.

Rating: **

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Charlie’s Angels 1:2 “Hellride”

Airdate: 9/22/76

A female race car driver dies in a track explosion; her mechanic hires the Angels to contest the official cause of engine malfunction. Digging for clues, they discover some nefarious goings-on the form of a greedy promoter and his assistant, along with another female driver, appropriately named “Bloody Mary” – the one who instigated the fatal crash. When their role in the murder becomes clear, Sabrina gets behind the wheel herself to participate in a trans-Mexican border race, where she follows Mary to discover that all the heaves are in on a diamond-smuggling ring. The mysterious crash? A woman originally in on the plot but later having second thoughts – and thus numbered days.

Ever wonder what a mash-up between a race car drama and a jewel heist would look like? Well, wonder no more, and now Western Civilization can continue on. Yes, it’s every but as preposterous as it sound, but somehow, with a healthy dose of the Angels’ trademark kitsch, it carries the day. Sure, they could’ve just explained away the exploding car as some kind of vendetta or enmity from a rival racer, or the machinations of a money-grubber looking to drum up stadium business, but kooky, byzantine plotworks are (so far) what the series is all about (although this storyline is definitely easier to follow than that of the pilot).

Sabrina gets to play the adventure-girl role this week as a race car driver, while Bosley is a real hoot as a revival minister helping Jill, as his daughter, warm up to the men in a effort to get info. Best performance by a guest actor this week goes to prolific TV character actress Jenny O’Hara, as Bloody Mary; she plays the toughie with all the glowering, snarling camp the show will allow (a lot), and reminded me of a cross between Rizzo from the movie Grease and Pink Tuscadero from Happy Days. As this episode predated both those works, perhaps they were inspired by Miss O’Hara’s performance.

First episode with standard opening, using clips from the pilot and first few episodes of the series, including this one. We also learn the official name of Charlie’s business: “Charles Townsend Detective Agency,” as revealed by a exterior shot of the building where the agents get their directives.

Rating: ***

Charlie’s Angels 1:1 “Charlie’s Angels” (Pilot)

Airdate: 3/21/76

Our story begins with “Charlie” (voiced by John Forsythe), a nebulously-affiliated investigative crime-stopper, explaining in the now famous setup of how he “rescued” three female police academy grads from menial duties so they could work for him. Kelly (Jaclyn Smith), Jill (Farrah Fawcett-Majors) and Sabrina (Kate Jackson) receive their dossier from the unseen Charlie via speakerphone. Bosley (David Doyle) and Woodville (David Ogden Stiers) are on hand to iron out the nuts and bolts, and to supply ancillary assistance when needed.

And now, Charlie has a new case for the girls: a wine country magnate has mysteriously disappeared, and his wife and new beau, Beau (Bo Hopkins, continuing his typecasting as the go-to villain for 70s shlock), are set to inherit the place. But the rightful heir, the family’s black sheep daughter, has also gone missing, and has only days to step in before the will-reading to claim her rightful prize. The Angels try to subvert the coup, first by having Kelly successfully impersonate the daughter, then by arranging her disclosure so she can get in cahoots with the baddies and arrange some dastardly doings when the real daughter comes into town, who happens to be…

"The entire fourth floor!"
Sabrina, dolled up to elegant perfection and ready to claim her fortune, but in a sudden turn she announces her true intentions: to forgo the lavish inheritance and require that a bird sanctuary be built on the nearby swamp. Suspicious Beau skulks around the bog to get answers, and when he sees Bosley “birdwatching,” he forces out the imposter’s true reason for surveyance: oil. So Beau and co., dollars in eyes, buy out the property of a hillbilly’s daughter (Jill) for a quarter of a million dollars, but he needs to excavate one important resource first – the body of the murdered winemaker. The Angels are all ready for him; after a tussle in the bog, and some assistance from a local boy named Aram (Tommy Lee Jones), the sheriff swoops in and arrests our nefarious complicitors in pretty short order. Back at home, Charlie reveals his client: the long, lost daughter of the estate, who should now have no problem reclaiming her beloved vineyards.

The grand 90-minute pilot for one of the highest-rated series of the late 70s is actually a fairly routine procedural drama, an extremely common genre of the era. The formula is intact here – our heroes get a case, and, in a myriad of assorted, exotic settings, quirky side-characters and glowering viliiains, get the job done in the end. Like Baretta, Barnaby Jones, Starsky & Hutch, and the rest, there weren’t too many shadings of character here, nor was there much suspense regarding the outcome. Indeed, there may have been the fear that Angels would just file right in with the other cop shows, and be cast aside in a genre already pretty shopworn by the date of its premiere.

But it was a smash hit.

The show topped the Nielsen’s, and ABC was so shocked they thought it was a mistake, rerunning it the following week to make sure it wasn’t a fluke. Again, a ratings hit, ad so it didn’t take long for programmers to pick up the show in September. After SWAT, it became the second feather in producer Aaron Spelling’s 70s cap; it certainly would not be the last.

Perhaps the only one not surprised was Spelling himself – the man clearly had his finger on the pulse of America’s TV-viewing habits, and, in many ways, Angels was a no-brainer. Take your garden-variety crime drama, but take out the dude and replace him with… three gorgeous women, sort of like Police Woman times 3. And putting it in a socio-cultural perspective, it was certainly a matter of right time/right place; the enuui of Vietnam and Watergate hung over the country like a pall, and the Sprit of ’76 was both a celebration of a birthright and as well as a spritual reinvigoration. The same mantra which welcolmed a grass-roots, peanut farmer into the White House also celebrated a letting-your-hair-down aesthetic on TV. The harrowing images on the 6:00 news were over, for now; by 1976 we had Farrah, and no one minded it one bit.

But Spelling knew the jiggle factor could only go so far – there has to be a halfway decent story too, and there is. The Charlie’s Angels pilot spins a reasonably credible yarn, and its plot is crafty enough. As a matter of fact, it may even have more plot than is typical of its ilk – my head was spinning at about the ¾ mark, especially when the other Angels get in on the plot to bring the wine empire down. But I’d rather have it that way than too little story, and anyway it’s all giddy fun, not unlike a breezy Bond film, where you’re all too willing to be momentarily confused as long as you get the goods.

And the appeal of the characters certainly carries them a long way, too. You like the Angels, they’re not sharply ironic or cynical, nor do they wear their “girl-power” on their sleeve (take that, movie versions). They’re just crime-stopping agents cashing in a check like the next Starsky, Hutch or Magnum. And if they can provide some sex appeal, albeit modest by today’s standards, so much the better. I can already see some of you rolling your eyes at that praise, ready to pounce on my male chauvinism, but for the record, renowned feminist and social critic Camille Paglia called the show, “effervescent action-adventure showing smart, bold women working side by side in fruitful collaboration." (I guess it comes down to the age-old query: can female sex appeal be empowering or it necessarily objectifying?)

Such was not the critical consensus when Angels debuted. In addition to drawing ire from feminists like Gloria Steinem, the show, along with other critically reviled shows like Three’s Company, launched a national review of the general quality of TV programming, concluding with the recommendation that things better shape up real soon (they didn’t). But time has been kind to both Angels and Three’s Company; both shows have become beloved fixtures of “our television heritage,” and even come up looking downright stellar (and quite chaste) compared to the post-cable landscape of horny housewives, publicity-starved reality-TV celebrities and macabre crime-scene dramas (with a zillion spin-offs and variants).

I love the 70s!  They didn't care about sweat stains back then.

But back to the pilot, where it all began. Clearly some kinks need ironing: the Woodville character, although played well by the underrated David Ogden Stiers, is completely superfluous, and would be jettisoned by the series premiere. It’s also odd to note that there’s a somewhat uneven ratio of Angel screen time, will Jaclyn Smith easy dominating the first half of the show (ironic, as Kate Jackson entered the project as the biggest star, and this meant to be a “star vehicle” for her). And perhaps they’ll loosen the eins just a bit with the plot – the best moments here are those involving good ol’ boy Tommy Lee Jones as Aram, who gets to interact with two of the Angels and even gets to have a little chemistry with Sabrina. And I’d also like to see the Angels’ operation be a little less perfect – everything seems to work to a T, and they’re never really imperiled until the final face-off in the swamp. Might add some more suspense if their hair got mussed up every now and again, and I mean that literally and figuratively.

But no doubt they’ll have the bugs worked out. Our next entry: the first episode of the series proper, complete with real opening credits. Can’t wait! 

Rating: ***1/2 

P.S.: Almost forget – one of the show’s great assets: the theme song! Nicely used but not overused, it’s as representative of the franchise as the stars themselves. Hum a few bars to yourself while you wait for the next post.

On to the next case...

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