Thursday, April 14, 2016

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...

1 comment: said...

Charlie's Angels trivia: The reason the pilot episode's plot so heavily features Jaclyn Smith is because 'Kelly' was initially going to be played by Kate Jackson who, at the last minute, decided she'd rather be Sabrina.

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