Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Charlie's Angels, season one (1976)

I’ve been watching the first season of Charlie's Angels (originally screened in 1976), a show that I had surprisingly enough never watched before. And I’m thoroughly enjoying it! Yes I know it’s very very silly, but if you approach it as high camp it starts to work. And frankly I don’t think there’s any other way to approach this series. In fact I don’t think there ever was any other way to treat it.

Years ago I would never have watched a series such as this. I just took life so very very seriously in those days.

Charles Townsend (John Forsythe) runs a high-class private detective agency. He recruits three female cops who are fed up with directing traffic and similar mundane assignments. He offers them a life of glamour and excitement, and that’s certainly what Kelly (Jaclyn Smith), Jill (Farrah Fawcett-Majors) and Sabrina (Kate Jackson) get.

All three female leads are fun but it’s Farrah Fawcett-Majors who really pushed the show into delightful ultra-kitsch overload.

We never actually see Charlie, and Kelly, Jill and Sabrina never see him either. They get their instructions by telephone, and through Charlie’s right-hand man, John Bosley (David Doyle). Charlie is clearly a devotee of feminine pulchritude and the sexual innuendo-laced interludes involving Charlie and his indefatigable pursuit of the fair sex provide extra campy fun.

There are certainly some fairly weak episodes. To Kill an Angel is unfortunately corny and sentimental and generally very dull, involving an autistic boy Kelly has been mentoring, a boy who may be a witness to a murder. The Seance deals with the ever-popular theme of fake psychics but fails to generate much excitement. Angel Trap tries to add some emotional depth with Jill feeling sorry for the hitman she has to entrap but it isn’t very convincing. In Bullseye Kelly and Jill find themselves in the army, investigating the murder of a female recruit while Sabrina masquerades as an army nurse. There’s something crooked going on   at the base’s medical centre and the Angels also have to deal with a training sergeant with a very bad attitude and a very short fuse. It’s not a good episode and it is very predictable. Angels on a String is a terrible episode with an uninteresting plot involving that hoariest of thriller clichés, the double, and leaden pacing.

Luckily though most of season one is quite entertaining. Angels in Chains proves that being female private detectives isn’t all glamour as the Angels have to go undercover at a women’s prison. It’s not just a tough prison. Inmates have been known to disappear without a trace, and it’s the disappearance of one such inmate that prompts this particular investigation. Seeing Farrah Fawcett-Majors doing the tough girl thing is a definite high camp highlight of season one. Target: Angels puts the girls in real danger - someone is trying to kill all three of them. They have to hide out in Charlie’s house. Of course Charlie isn’t there at the time but they figure this might give them the chance to find some clue as to what he actually looks like.

Lady Killer sees the series move into mildly risque territory. Two centrefold models for Feline magazine have been murdered. The Angels go undercover at the Feline Club (where the girls wear cat outfits, a variation on the clubs run by a certain real-life magazine publisher). Part of the undercover operation involves Jill being the magazine’s next centrefold, providing some mild titillation for the audience although I doubt that anyone actually thought they were going to see Farrah Fawcett-Majors getting her gear off.

Consenting Adults deals with a shady dating service. It’s a fine episode and the skateboard chase at the end is inspired and is one of the highlights of the whole season.

Angels on Wheels is equally interesting, with the Angels investigating the murder of a roller derby queen (women’s roller derby was insanely popular back in the 70s). This episode gets bonus points for Jill not just going undercover as a roller derby skater but also beating the living daylights out of the team’s bad girl. The Big Tap-Out involves a gambling sting and it’s very entertaining. The Vegas Connection is another episode with a gambling theme (plus blackmailing). It’s a good script with some nice twists and the Angels are in fine form.

The major weakness of the series is that the plots do at times tend to be a bit thin and a bit predictable. Fortunately the plots aren’t really the reason anyone would be watching this show. The attraction is the glamour and the exuberant high camp atmosphere. Even in 1976 Charlie’s Angels must have seemed extraordinarily camp. It’s also obvious that no-one involved in the show was taking it seriously or expected the audience to take it seriously. It does not however make the mistake of aiming for pure comedy. The three Angels play things fairly straight although with a kind of slightly exaggerated breathless excitement that suggests they were definitely in on the joke. The fact that they’re not trying to be crazy or zany makes things much more amusing.  

All three lead actresses are very impressive. I’m not suggesting that their acting in this series was truly great acting but their performances are perfect for the kind of show this is - they’re slightly cartoonish and hyper-energetic. They obviously understood the nature of the show and tailored their performances accordingly. Most importantly the three actresses work together extremely well. 

It’s common these days to accuse movies and TV series of the 70s of being outrageously sexist. The idea of this series might well lead one to expect that sort of thing. When you actually watch the series you can see that such accusations tend to miss the point. Many episodes do deal with sexual themes but they do so in a surprisingly nuanced manner, and more often than not in a gently humorous way. Sabrina might suggest to one middle-aged client that he’d be better off confining his woman-chasing to women over the age of twenty but she does so in an amused and good-humoured way. Sabrina is smart enough to know that this is a much more effective approach than getting angry or nasty. The series works on the assumption that men generally like women and women generally like men and that it’s possible for men and women to get along surprisingly well as long as there’s a bit of give and take on both sides. Watching this series today that outlook seems refreshingly civilised.

The Angels are portrayed as (mostly) very competent private detectives who can handle themselves pretty well but they’re not super-women and they’re not the unrealistic kickass action heroines of so many modern movies and TV series. They’re in a dangerous business and as women if they tried to rely on brawn they wouldn’t survive very long, so they rely on brains, good judgment and teamwork and try not to take stupid risks. They also make use of their physical attractiveness because they’re professionals and they realise that it’s a tactic that works. They don’t agonise over whether it’s politically correct or not - they’re too busy trying to get the job done to waste time on stuff like that. 

There is of course no question that the show’s big drawcard was having three hot babes as private detectives and that aspect is played up as much as possible. Almost every shot of Farrah Fawcett-Majors seems to focus on her nipples. Titillation was certainly a considerable factor in the extraordinary success of season one.

There is a definite sleaze factor in many episodes, such as Dirty Business, Lady Killer and Consenting Adults. It’s a bit disturbing and it’s not really necessary. It’s certainly not as bad as modern American television in this respect but it was an ominous portent.

It’s a series that was unashamedly lighthearted and rather silly and to get away with that you need scripts with wit and style. That’s the big problem here. There are too many dull scripts that end up falling flat. Fawcett-Majors, Jackson and Smith always do their best but with stronger scripts they’d have been even better.

Despite the uneven writing Charlie’s Angels is fun. Not one of the great television series of its era but still enjoyable. Recommended.


  1. Nice write up. I too, have revisiting this series the past few months. I thought the pilot was interesting as they were obviously setting up Kelly as the main "Angel" and it really makes you appreciate the addition of David Doyle to the cast.
    I saw the first couple of seasons during its initial run but have only seen a couple of the later episodes, so I'm curious to check those out. Your right, it is is highly enjoyable entertainment. Just put your brain in neutral and enjoy !

    1. Dick, I agree that David Doyle fits in nicely.

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