Thursday 28 January 2021

The A-Team season 3 (1984-85)

The A-Team returned for its third season in 1984. It was the formula precisely as before. It was a formula that was working so presumably there was no reason to change it. Eventually, inevitably, the formula was going to wear thin but at this stage it’s still working just fine. Disaster would finally strike in season four as the formula started to grow stale and the audience started to evaporate but during the third season the series was still riding high in the ratings.

The formula worked mainly due to sheer exuberance plus the inspired performances of the four regulars - George Peppard as Colonel Hannibal Smith, Dirk Benedict as Templeton Peck (The Face), Dwight Schlutz as Howling Mad Murdock and of course Mr T as B.A. Baracus.

If you try to pick a favourite character then you’re really missing the point. It was the combination of four wildly different characters played by four wildly different actors who somehow just had the right chemistry that made The A-Team work. There is simply no way any of the four leads could have been successfully replaced.

Melinda Culea, who played Amy, had departed during the second season (which I think was rather unfortunate). The series really needed a female cast member to add a bit of balance so Marla Heasley as Tawnia Baker was brought in as a semi-regular. Unfortunately she didn’t last long.

Of course this series was always going to run out of steam eventually. The formula was really quite rigid. It’s amazing that for three seasons, even with plots that were often pretty similar and with stunts that followed similar patterns as well ways were found to inject enough variety into that formula to keep things interesting. Somehow new ways were found to con B.A. into flying even though flying was the one thing he feared. New ways were found to bust Murdock out of the psych ward at the Veterans’ Hospital. Murdock found new ways to enrage B.A. and to express his craziness. Hannibal was still coming up with outlandish disguises. New ways were found for the A-Team to evade the Military Police. It couldn’t last but in season three these things still manage to be genuinely amusing.

There are a few signs that maybe the formula was going to start wearing thin sooner rather than later. There are a few episodes that are enjoyable enough but you start to notice at times that the spark is not quite there. There are too many episodes where the writers have been content to recycle the same plot. The episodes which work are the ones that vary the formula a little, or have settings that are colourful enough to make things interesting (just as the Wild West Show episode).

With all the mayhem and the explosions and the gunplay no-one ever gets badly hurt. The A-Team was both ultra-violent and yet not truly violent at all. Curiously enough this upset a lot of people at the time. They either felt there was too much violence or they felt that somehow there was something immoral about violence in which nobody gets hurt. It was a series that contrived to combine violence and wholesomeness.

The A-Team is supposed to be a bunch of urban mercenaries but they only ever take on cases where there are bad guys who need to be taken down. They’re mercenaries with morals. And they only work for people who really need help - rich people have plenty of other options. That’s about as close as the series ever comes to having a political subtext - they’re on the side of the little guy. Of course the people they work for usually don’t have much money but The A-Team doesn’t care too much about money. And they are on the run so I guess they don’t have much use for lots of money.

Episode Guide

In Bullets and Bikinis a couple of girls own this nice hotel in Miami and a gangster is trying to force them to sell. They don’t want to sell so they hire the A-Team. This one follows the standard A-Team formula. In fact to be honest almost every episode follows the standard A-Team formula. It doesn’t matter. The four regular cast members go through their paces with their usual style, there’s a generous helping of mayhem and there’s plenty of humour. Plus, since this is a resort hotel, there are plenty of babes in bikinis. It’s lots of fun.

The Bend in the River is a two-parter. Archaeologist Dr Brian Lefcourt is captured by river pirates on the Amazon. He was there looking for cultural artifacts and a lost city although there were rumours of buried treasure. Lefcourt just happens to be engaged to (well, almost engaged to) Tawnia Baker so naturally the A-Team sets off for South America to rescue him.

A good A-Team episode need colourful villains and this one scores highly in that regard. There’s El Cajon (“The Coffin”), the outrageous cut-throat river pirate, and there’s the sinister and utterly ruthless Doyle (Mike Preston). The question is, why is El Cajon preventing anyone from going down the river and what is Doyle up to? He’s not a man likely to be interested in cultural artifacts. It turns out that there’s a lot more hidden in the jungle than a lost city. There’s something much more menacing by far. This is an ambitious totally over-the-top episode that works very neatly indeed.

In Fire a big fire fighting company is trying to take over a contract from small fire-fighting company run by a feisty lady fire-fighter. But the contract is really small so why would such a big company be interested? That’s one of the things the A-Team will have find out. In this one the A-Team gets some good news. Colonel Decker isn’t after them any more. The bad news is that now there’s a Colonel Briggs after them, and he’s just as determined. You can’t dislike an episode which features a fire-engine chase. Good stuff.

In Timber! it’s small loggers under threat, this time from a crooked union which isn’t really a union at all. The Face has a lot of fun impersonating a forestry inspector spouting gobbledegook about horrible insect menaces. Another episode that follows the formula rigidly but gets away with it through sheer exuberance.

Double Heat lands the A-Team is in the middle of a war between rival gangster, with a kidnapped girl’s life at stake. What Hannibal would like to do is to make sure both gangsters lose. It will be tricky, but he likes a challenge. A good episode.

In Trouble on Wheels there’s a racket going on at an auto plant. Hannibal and Face go undercover to find out who’s behind it. The usual mayhem ensues. A routine episode.

In The Island an ex-army doctor named Fallone lives on a tiny island which happens to be a sovereign state, and that’s what attracts the bad guys who want to take over and use the islanders as slave labour in their narcotics business. The A-Team has no intention of allowing this to happen. When the A-Team has to assault a fortress you expect them to take a car or an old truck and convert it into an improvised armoured vehicle. But not this time. This time they have an actual tank. This story also features a memorable villain. A pretty decent episode.

In Showdown! we get the A-Team as the bad guys, battling against the good guys - who are of course the A-Team. Yes, two rival A-Teams. The bad A-Team is trying to intimidate the the owner of a travelling Wild West Show. The real A-Team has plenty to keep them busy since the military police are hot on their trail again and this time surely there can be no escape. Plenty of fun in this episode.

In Sheriffs of Rivertown the A-Team is hired to take over law enforcement in a South American mining town. There have been several mysterious accidents in the mine. The A-Team has fun running around with their badges before they discover that there’s a nefarious conspiracy behind the accidents. Of course they have to build a makeshift vehicle but this time it’s something more interesting than an armoured vehicle. A solid episode.

In The Bells of St. Mary’s the way in which the A-Team gets involved in the case makes no sense at all. The case involves a girl singing group who have major problems with their record company, for reasons that make no sense at all. It leads to kidnapping. The most surprising thing about this one is that it was written by series creator Stephen J. Cannell so he has no-one but himself to blame for the fact that it’s a bit of dud, enlivened only by an interesting twist in the B.A.-Murdock dynamic.

Hot Styles takes the A-Team into the world of high fashion. Face’s latest girlfriend is involved in some way with notorious hoodlum Johnny Turian. The A-Team rescues her but she doesn’t seem to appreciate their efforts one little bit. Face is determined to figure what’s going on. And Murdock turns fashion designer. B.A. doesn’t appear in this episode. This is a very routine episode, lacking any real cleverness or sense of fun. Even the fight scenes are very flat.

Breakout! begins with disaster for the A-Team - B.A. and Murdock get arrested in a hick town after getting caught in the middle of an armed robbery. As soon as B.A.’s prints are checked the sheriff will know he’s got a member of the A-Team in his hands which means Colonel Decker will soon be on his way. Hannibal will have to break his friends out of a chain gang but there are lots of complications and he’s not the only one planning a breakout. And there’s a woman and child under threat from murderous hoodlums and even if it means risking capture the A-Team is not going to walk away a situation like that. Naturally B.A. gets to construct an improvised vehicle but this one is really clever. Plenty of action and Decker is right on their tail all the way. Pretty good fun.

Cup A' Joe has an absolutely stock standard A-Team plot. If you’re a regular viewer you can predict the entire course of the story within the first few minutes. The owner of a chain of restaurants is trying to force the owner of a small diner to sell out which doesn’t seem to make sense unless that diner is worth more than appearances suggest. It’s executed well enough but that rigid adherence to a formula was becoming a problem. Murdock is amusing masquerading as an army bomb disposal specialist but apart from that it offers no surprises and no inspiration. A very routine story.

In The Big Squeeze the A-Team is trying to break a loan-sharking operation. Jack ‘The Ripper’ Lane runs the loan shark operation for big-time mobster Nathan Vincent. Lane (played with gusto by Wings Hauser) is a seriously crazy and unhinged villain. Since none of Lane’s victims will stand up to him the A-Team set themselves up as victims. Hannibal spends most of the episode regaling anyone who will listen with Irish proverbs (when he isn’t dead). Nothing wildly original here but it’s done with more style and energy than most season three episodes and it works.

is a slight change of pace. The members of the A-Team find themselves owning 60% of a fighter named Billy Marquette. But petty gangster Sonny Monroe wants Billy to take a dive, and he’s threatening Billy’s sister. Fortunately Hannibal has a plan. It involves B.A. taking Billy’s place in the ring. Lots of boxing action in this one and some tension as Hannibal’s plan starts to unravel. A good episode.

Skins takes the A-Team to Kenya, hunting down poachers who killed a game warden. Hannibal’s plan to take down the whole poaching operation is pretty clever. It’s the basic A-Team formula but with a few subtle changes (such as B.A. flying, but for the first time ever doing so voluntarily) and with the change of setting it all works rather nicely.

Road Games deals with Gentleman Jim Sullivan who (along with his daughter) runs a home for troubled children. Gentleman Jim has one weakness, gambling, and it’s landed him in big trouble. He’s now in debt to a racketeer named Royce and as a result he could lose his house which means he, his daughter and five troubled kids will be homeless unless the A-Team can help him. This one follows the standard formula pretty closely but in this case it works beautifully. There’s the right mix of humour and action and there are a few inspired moments (such as chasing a mobile casino with a helicopter). A very good episode.

Moving Targets is another attempt to vary the formula a little. The A-Team is hired by a north-west African sheikh to protect his daughter. She’s about to marry a neighbouring prince which will bring peace between the two countries, but a revolutionary group intends to stop the marriage. There are multiple double-crosses, lots of action and the ever-awesome John Saxon as the revolutionary leader. B.A. gets conned into flying again but this time it looks like he really will get his revenge. He hates flying, but he hates crashing even more. Not a bad episode.

Knights of the Road is a by-the-numbers episode. A small towing company is being driven out of business by a larger outfit, for some unknown mysterious reason. So the A-Team finds itself in the tow-truck business. B.A. builds a monster tow-truck. The usual mayhem ensues. An average episode.

Waste ‘Em! sticks absolutely rigidly to the established formula and you can predict everything that is going to happen after the first 30 seconds. A waste disposal company is trying to force a small delivery service to sell their despatch centre. The dart bug is cute and the flamethrower is a nice touch but otherwise it’s strictly routine.

Just when the series seems to be hopelessly stuck in a rut along comes Bounty. It’s not just a very very good episode it’s also a very unusual one that departs from the standard formula. Murdock is captured by hillbilly bounty hunters who want the whole A-Team. Murdock has to be rescued but even if the rescue succeeds the bounty hunters will try again so they’re going to have to be persuaded not to do that. Murdock actually gets rescued by a pretty female veterinarian but the A-Team still has problems - Colonel Decker is hot on their trail as well.

And Murdock falls in love with the pretty vet. Any kind of serious romance just doesn’t happen in this series but this is true love. Two things make this more interesting - the vet is played by Wendy Fulton, who was (and still is) Dwight Schultz’s real-life wife so as you would expect there is genuine chemistry there. And Schultz, for the first time in the series, plays Murdock dead straight. Which raises really intriguing questions. Is Murdock’s madness all just an act? Which actually makes sense - by pretending to be mad he keeps out of the clutches of Colonel Decker and he can’t be used to trap the rest of the A-Team. And, even more unusually, the romance angle is all played very seriously.

Of course there’s the usual action as well, and some very effective tension. This story was a bold experiment, coming at a time when the series needed to do something a bit different, and it works surprisingly well. It may even be the best episode of the season.

Beverly Hills Assault takes the A-Team into the world of art. More specifically, the world of crooked at dealers. Young painter ‘Speed’ Miller gets beaten up by goons and his friends hire the A-Team to find out why. First they have to convince the dealer that Murdock is a great artist. This is another very good episode that breaks away just a little from the standard formula, and also moves away from the A-Team’s usual milieu. You don’t expect to encounter the A-Team on Rodeo Drive.

We’re back to the standard formula with Trouble Brewing. A brewery is trying to take over a small soda-pop business. A routine episode but competently executed.

In Incident at Crystal Lake the A-Team decides to take a vacation but Colonel Decker has other plans for them, as does a gang of psycho armed robbers. Face learns that fishing is a lot safer than chasing girls, B.A. has to watch in horror as his beloved van is about to be blown up, Murdock finds a new friend (a shop dummy) and Hannibal’s love of disguise is put to more imaginative use than normal. This episode is a fine example of the basic formula executed with real flair. A great way to end the season.

Final Thoughts

An uneven season with too many episodes just rehashing the basic formula but with a few inspired episodes thrown in. If you’re not a fan of the series this season won’t convert you but if you are a fan you’ll enjoy it.

Wednesday 20 January 2021

the Russian Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson

Between 1979 and 1986 Soviet television produced a very successful series of adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. They were widely acclaimed in the Soviet Union, and in the West. Vasily Livanov played Holmes while Dr Watson was played by Vitaly Solomin. The first adaptation, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, was in two parts, the first being based on The Adventure of the Speckled Band and the second being based on A Study in Scarlet.

The first part begins in an intriguing manner. Dr John Watson accepts an offer to share rooms in Baker Street with a Mr Sherlock Holmes. He likes Holmes well enough but he knows nothing whatever about him and has no idea that he is a detective. Watson is a man who prides himself on minding his own business so it never occurs to him to ask Holmes what his profession is. Watson is however human and he is curious. He decides that, given Holmes’ odd interests, he must be a master criminal of some sort.

This introductory episode serves two purposes. It establishes the essential Englishness of the setting. A well-bred Englishman of the middle classes does not intrude into other people’s business. Watson cannot ask Holmes outright what he does for a living. It just isn’t done. The second purpose it serves is to establish the basis for the friendship between the two men. Once Holmes finally reveals that he is a detective all the suspicion is instantly transformed into comradeship. An immediate bond of friendship is formed. And of course Holmes knows that Watson is a man whose discretion can be relied upon.

The leisurely introduction also very clearly delineates the two lead characters for us. Holmes is a very odd bird indeed. Watson is deeply shocked to discover that Holmes has no idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun but is even more shocked to discover that Holmes considers this to be a matter of no importance whatsoever. Holmes is a man of very deep but very narrow intelligence. On matters relating in any way to criminal investigation (such as chemistry) he is close to being a genius. On matters not related to crime he is as innocent as a small child. All of this is of course straight from Conan Doyle’s stories but this TV production establishes this facet of Holmes’ character very cleverly and very wittily.

The continuing popularity of the Sherlock Holmes stories has little to do with Conan Doyle’s plots, which are now so familiar to us not just from his stories but from countless movie and TV adaptations. It is the character of Sherlock Holmes himself, and his friendship with Dr Watson (an apparently unlikely friendship) that provides the continuing fascination. This TV version, wisely, emphasises character over plot.

The actual plot of The Adventure of the Speckled Band occupies a comparatively small part of the running time but it’s dealt with deftly and skilfully. And again the emphasis is on character - both Holmes and Watson are outraged by the threat to the life of young Ellen Stoner. She is a charming young woman (played by Vitaly Solomin’s real-life wife Mariya Solomina) whose sister died in mysterious and sinister circumstances and who now believes that her stepfather intends to kill her. For Holmes this is not just crime-solving as an intellectual game. He detests criminals who prey on the vulnerable. It is a detestation that Watson emphatically shares. So while this is a Sherlock Holmes with the character’s eccentricities strongly emphasised this is also a Sherlock Holmes who is by no means lacking in humanity.

The second part opens with the murder of an American and we will eventually discover that it is a very American murder (Conan Doyle was somewhat fascinated by America). There are no signs of violence on the body but there are blood spots on the floor of the abandoned house in which the murder clearly took place. Inspector Lestrade is on the case and Holmes is confident that Lestrade has no chance of solving the murder. And Holmes is quite correct in his assumption.

By this time Holmes and Watson are firm friends. Watson decides to try his hand as a detective, with predictable results. Holmes does not hold this against his friend. In fact he has to admit to making some mistakes himself.

The second film in the series is in three parts, The King of Blackmail (based on the story The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton), Mortal Fight (based on The Final Problem) and The Hunt for the Tiger (based on The Adventure of the Empty House). It is in fact handled as a single connected story - the story of the epic fight of Holmes against the vast criminal conspiracy controlled by Professor Moriarty.

As I mentioned earlier the enduring appeal of Conan Doyle’s creation has little to do with his plots which, even by the 1920s, were starting to seem just a little contrived and lacking in the elaborate brilliance which later writers brought to the genre. This second film puts the emphasis on the thriller elements rather than the mystery elements and it’s a sound decision. The Holmes-Moriarty struggle really does make for a thrilling story, with plenty of action and danger. This is Holmes not as armchair detective but as a man of action, prepared to put his life on the line and prepared to kill or be killed.

Production values are extremely high, closer to feature film quality than to television quality. This was clearly a lavish production, with elaborate sets and great use of location shooting.

Livanov’s Holmes is very eccentric but I think his performance works. Holmes may be a very odd person but he has charisma and he is a very driven personality. Livanov plays him as a man for whom the fight against crime is a great game but it is also more than a game.

I can’t praise Vitali Simonov highly enough. This a complex Watson, a man who believes that he just wants to mind his own business but is caught up in the glamour and excitement of crime-fighting. His partnership with Holmes makes him feel more alive than ever before. He has always been a man of honour and principle. Now he has the opportunity to put his beliefs into practice. And Simonov makes this entirely plausible. Watson is a doctor but he was an army doctor. Clearly he always had a certain taste for adventure and a willingness to practise self-sacrifice. It’s also at times a humorous performance but not in the ways that portrayals of Watson often fall down by making Watson a figure of fun. We laugh with Simonov’s Watson, not at him. He is an intelligent man who can see the humour in life. Is he the best Watson ever? I thought Edward Hardwicke and David Burke were very very good in the Granada TV series but I think Vitali Simonov is slightly better.

If you’re expecting political subtexts then you needn’t worry. There aren’t any. Watson is thoroughly bourgeois but while he has the quirks of his class (a deep liking for respectability and order) he has the virtues of his class as well. He dislikes men like Moriarty who threaten the social and moral order because threats to the social and moral order really do cause suffering. His Watson is a thoroughly decent man who willingly accepts that sometimes decent men have to risk their lives for noble causes and he has no doubt that fighting crime is a noble cause.

I don’t think Vasily Livanov is as good as Jeremy Brett or Basil Rathbone but he’s not far behind and his performance is delightfully quirky.

In Conan Doyle’s original stories Holmes is on rare occasions troubled by the moral dilemmas raised by his profession. Perhaps justice and a rigid adherence to the law are not always entirely compatible. There is at least one story in which Holmes allows a criminal to go free because sending him to prison would not serve the interests of justice. Even murderers sometimes have motives which make their crimes understandable even if that does not excuse them. This series seems inclined to emphasise these moral dilemmas, most obviously in The King of Blackmail in which Holmes is prepared to break the law in the cause of a greater justice.

All I can say is that if all Soviet television was this good then I want to see more. This is a superb production. It’s intelligent, it’s polished, it’s pretty faithful to Conman Doyle and it’s great fun. Highly recommended.

It’s readily available on DVD, with English subtitles.

Sunday 10 January 2021

The Six Million Dollar Man: Wine, Women and War (TV movie, 1973)

The second of the three 1973 TV movie pilots which preceded the 1974 hit series The Six Million Dollar Man was Wine, Women and War. Compared to the first movie this seems like a pilot for a completely different TV series. The first movie was serious science fiction with a dark and brooding and very cynical tone. This second movie is pure James Bond, if you can imagine a cyborg James Bond.

The fact that Glen A. Larson had now come on board as executive producer may explain a great deal of this. He also wrote the script, and he was certainly a man with the right instincts as to what would work on network television.

The first movie was a ratings success but it was probably fairly obvious that the tone was too dark for a successful weekly series.

The first movie had been based (loosely) on Martin Caidin’s novel Cyborg. This second movie is based (very loosely) on Caidin’s follow-up novel Operation Nuke.

Steve Austin was a civilian in the first movie but now he’s magically transformed (without any explanation whatsoever) into an Air Force Colonel.

Unfortunately the most interesting character from the first movie, spymaster Oliver Spencer (Darren McGavin), has been replaced by a similar but much less interesting and less colourful character, Oscar Goldman (played by Richard Anderson). On the plus side the supporting cast is pretty impressive. There’s the very underrated Eric Braeden as arms dealer Arlen Findletter. There’s David McCallum once again playing a Russian as he did in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (this time he’s a Russian rocket scientist) and there’s Britt Ekland (soon to be a Bond girl in The Man with the Golden Gun) adding some glamour. In fact adding lots of glamour.

The tone is set right at the start, with Steve Austin as an ultra-cool debonair secret agent in an exotic locale (Alexandria) and with a glamorous woman. It’s like the start of a Bond movie. In fact Wine, Women and War pretty much is a low-budget Bond movie. It has a Bond movie plot (an arms dealer selling nuclear weapons) and a Bond villain (the ice-cold Arlen Findletter). And it has two Bond girl equivalents, the aforementioned Miss Ekland (who appears to be some kind of Soviet diplomat) plus Michele Carey as all-American good-time girl Cynthia Holland. There’s also Earl Holliman as a sleazy OSI operative who’s an old buddy of Steve’s but that doesn’t stop Steve from (quite justifiably) wanting to punch him out by the end of the story.

As for the lot, it’s basic but more than competent. Steve’s original assignment was to steal one of Findletter’s arms catalogues since the OSI has reason to believe that the items Findletter has listed for sale include both American and Russian ballistic missiles complete with thermonuclear warheads. It seems impossible but what if it’s true? The Russians believe it’s true, which is why one of their top rocket scientists has been sent to the Bahamas (where Findletter has his headquarters) to open negotiations with the arms dealer. The Russians have no desire to deal with such a criminal but they also believe they have no choice.

Steve thinks his mission is over but he is about to be manipulated once again. Still, it’s not all bad. He does get to spend a lot of time with two gorgeous babes. And he does have a personal score to settle.

There are some hints of the darkness of the first movie. Steve is shocked by Oscar Goldman’s casual acceptance of a girl’s death as being just part of the job. And Steve is still a reluctant super-spy and he is still being manipulated, and he still doesn’t like it. But he’s not really the same character. He has none of the self-doubts that the first version of Steve Austin had. None of the self-pity. None of the things that made that version of the character such an interesting hero. This new version is smoother, more self-confident, more brash. He’s more Bond-like. He’s pretty cool and it works but there’s no way you’re going to buy the idea that this is the same man.

While I said that this is like a low-budget Bond movie it also has to be said that by TV movie standards it’s fairly lavish. The villain’s underground secret headquarters is reasonably impressive. It captures the Bond movie feel fairly well. There are some definite echoes of Thunderball.

Eric Braeden manages to be totally and convincingly evil without ever needing to overact. Which of course makes him scarier. He’s a cold-blooded reptile of a villain. David McCallum is very good and Britt Ekland is both fun and gorgeous.

Steve Austin gets lots of chances to show off his superhuman powers - the scene where he’s swimming underwater while trying to avoid a depth-charge attack is a highlight.

While the first movie tried (with some success) to be serious science fiction Wine, Women and War is more overtly light-hearted escapist entertainment. Maybe it’s less interesting in some ways, but it’s a lot more fun. Definitely recommended.

There was a third TV movie, The Solid Gold Kidnapping, which I’ll get to shortly.

Sunday 3 January 2021

Charlie’s Angels season 2 (1977-78)

If you’re entirely unfamiliar with 1970s America it’s just possible that you don’t know about Charlie’s Angels. It was a major pop culture phenomenon. The premise is that there are three young pretty female cops (Jill, Sabrina and Kelly) just out of the Police Academy and they discover that being a rookie cop is really boring. They wanted excitement and they got routine. Then Charlie came along. Charlie runs a very upmarket private detective agency and he hires them. Now they have all the glamour and excitement they could wish for.

They never get to meet Charlie but one thing we learn about him very early on is that he has an eye for feminine pulchritude. He’s the kind of guy who likes the idea of having gorgeous women working for him. In fact, given that these three girls are totally inexperienced, we can be fairly confident that Charlie hired them because they’re, well quite frankly, because they’re babes. And maybe it makes some kind of sense - beautiful charming young women undoubtedly get more information out of informants than fat balding middle-aged guys.

The first season was a major hit. Then disaster struck, or so it seemed. Of the three Angels the one who got the most attention was Jill, played by Farrah Fawcett. It made Farrah Fawcett a star, a household name and a pop culture icon. At the end of the first season Farrah Fawcett made the biggest mistake in television history. She broke her contract, walked out on the series and set off for Hollywood to become a huge movie star. The glittering movie career that she thought awaited her never happened. And Charlie’s Angels lost by far its biggest star. It was obviously the end for the series but the producers didn’t see it that way. They set out to find a replacement and they found Cheryl Ladd. And surprisingly the gamble paid off. Rather that the series falling apart the second season, which started airing on ABC in late 1977, was marginally more successful than the first.

Charlie’s Angels may have been hugely popular but critics were disdainful. It was dismissed as a series that relied entirely on the attractiveness of the three female leads, or more crudely they felt it relied on T&A. And it’s certainly true that the Angels have a habit of wearing very revealing clothing and if a plotline offers even the slightest excuse to get the girls into bikinis you can be sure the opportunity will not be allowed to go by. It’s also reasonable to say that the various lead actresses over the show’s five-year run were not distinguished by extraordinary levels of acting ability. But they looked great in bikinis.

So what appeal does this series have today, apart from showing as much female flesh as you could get away with on network TV at that time? That’s a difficult question to answer. The premise is silly. Many of the plots are silly and far-fetched. The acting is nothing to get excited about. This series was, to a large extent, just a babe-fest. But it has an undeniable charm. Partly it’s because it was the 70s and people didn’t agonise so much about such things. The series makes no apologies for relying heavily on beautiful stars in skimpy clothing.

It also undeniably has a considerable camp appeal. The fact that the lead actresses play things so straight just makes it more deliciously camp.

Of course there have been attempts to retcon the series as a feminist statement. Which really is largely wishful thinking. OK, so the three glamorous female detectives are reasonably capable as private eyes but while you can make a feminist case for other series featuring women private eyes or secret agents (series like Honey West or The Avengers) trying to make that case for Charlie’s Angels does seem like clutching at straws.

Maybe that’s why Charlie’s Angels is so much fun. It doesn’t take itself seriously and it isn’t preachy and it isn’t trying to hit us over the head with political correctness. It’s just a fun lightweight adventure series with gorgeous scantily-clad women. Back in the 70s TV was allowed to be fun. And female TV stars were allowed to be sexy and glamorous and not wear very much clothing.

It’s not quite a private eye spoof series but it is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. It doesn’t expect its audience to take it too seriously. And it gets the tone just right, not pushing the tongue-in-cheek element too far. It’s also a fundamentally good-natured series. The three Angels are not treated in a mocking way. There’s no trace of snarkiness. There’s humour but we’re laughing with the girls, not at them.

Neither the Angels nor the viewers ever get to see Charlie but we do hear him. He’s voiced by John Forsyte, a very good choice with his rich fruity voice. Forstye manages to bring Charlie to life fairly effectively. We know he’s sublimely self-confident, he loves beautiful women, he enjoys the good life and he’s lazy - he lets Bosley and the Angels do all the work. He has a sense of justice but we feel he likes being in the detective business because it fits in with his glamorous playboy lifestyle.

One of the many things I love about this show is that the Angels are not super-women. They’re determined and capable and they can handle themselves OK but they can’t take on big guys in physical fights. That means they have to be smart to get themselves out of dangerous situations and it makes the writers work a bit harder. There’s a great moment in the season opener when one of the Angels is confronted by two really big guys on a beach. Her response? She screams, and every guy on the beach rushes over to protect the little lady. It’s a smart move and it’s both more fun and more convincing than having her take on the goons in hand-to-hand combat.

What the Angels do have going for them is that they’re gorgeous and that can be more useful to a private eye than martial arts skills. It’s amazing what a pretty PI can make a male suspect do.

One unexpectedly realistic touch (and realism is the last thing you would normally associate with this series) concerns guns. We know that the Angels all have gun licences because we see them carrying guns in the occasional episode. But they’re very reluctant to carry them and even more reluctant to use them. Which is of course quite realistic. Reading private eye thrillers and watching most private eye TV series you get the impression that the average American PI kills maybe a dozen people a year. Which is clearly ludicrous. A private investigator good at his (or her) job is not going to run around shooting people all the time. For one thing they don’t need the aggravation they’d get from the cops and the courts, and the media. So the Angels probably use guns the way real-life PIs would - only as a last resort.

A particular highlight is the fun the series has mocking every sort of 1970s California craziness.

Kate Jackson’s performances are a bit hit-and-miss. When she’s good she’s very very good but sometimes she just gets it badly wrong. Jaclyn Smith is uniformly good and Cheryl Ladd makes even the bad episodes worth watching.

There are definitely some bad episodes, with scripts that really needed a lot more work. But there are some terrific episodes as well. Oddly enough considering that this is basically a light-hearted series the standout episodes tend to be the slightly darker ones. On the whole the good episodes outnumber the bad ones.

Episode Guide

In the feature-length Angels in Paradise the Angels are anxiously awaiting the arrival of the new member of the team, the replacement for Jill. They expect to hate the new girl but it turns out to be Jill’s kid sister Kris (Cheryl Ladd) and they take to her straight away. And besides, they have bigger problems to worry about - Charlie has been kidnapped. The kidnapper is glamorous racketeer Leilani Sako and she doesn’t want money, she wants the Angels to do a job for her. A job that is kinda illegal (breaking people out of prison usually being illegal). The problem is that there’s another player in the game.

Charlie was in Hawaii when he was kidnapped so that’s where the Angels (and Bosley) are now headed. The Angels are working for Leilani Sako but it’s an uneasy relationship. Leilani is a crook, although by the standards of racketeers she’s ruthless but not especially evil. Her husband Billy (the one the Angels have to spring from prison) is a crook as well but he’s really a pretty nice guy. It’s Leilani’s opposition who are the seriously bad guys. There’s plenty of hijinks, lots of opportunities to get the Angels into their bikinis and Cheryl Ladd even has a nude scene (although shot so that we don’t see anything). She has to interview a contact and the only place she can interview him is on a nude beach and since she has a job to do she takes her clothes off. The producers were obviously determined that Cheryl Ladd was going to make an impression in her first appearance in the series! It’s all complicated and silly but great fun.

This is a great season opener. Lovely location shooting, Jaclyn Smith and Cheryl Ladd showing lots of skin, lots of teasing the audience with the possibility we might finally see Charlie, wonderful guest starring performances by Tommy Fujiwara as the nice guy crook Billy and France Nuyen as sexy villainess Leilani. They were pulling out all the stops to make sure that audiences weren’t going to miss Farrah Fawcett and it works.

Angels On Ice is another two-parter. Ice skating was a big thing in the 70s, and female ice skaters wear very revealing consumes, so an ice skating episode was an obviously terrific idea. Two ice skating stars have been kidnapped. The gloriously ludicrous plot has something to do with oil sheikhs and terrorists. What matters is that all three Angels get to shine. There’s a fun sequence where Sabrina steals a truck to chase the bad guys and slams straight into a police car, then tries to talk her way out of it and talks herself into the slammer. Kris gets to be a clown on ice. Kelly gets to wear a harem-girl outfit and do a belly dance, and does a wonderful escape scene. None of it makes much sense but it’s deliriously entertaining.

Pretty Angels All in a Row makes it clear that no opportunities are going to be missed to get Kelly and Kris into skimpy outfits. This time they go undercover at a beauty pageant. A couple of good old boys from Texas are trying to rig the contest. This is a cheesy episode but it’s quite deliberately and delightfully cheesy. Of course the Miss Chrysanthemum pageant contestants have to demonstrate that they have talent as well as looks, so Kris does a magic act and Kelly does a sexy dance routine. Cheryl Ladd does get one serious acting moment - she gets shot at, she reacts instantly as she’s trained to do and then after it’s over she is obviously seriously shaken up. It’s an unexpected moment of authenticity that Ladd handles extremely well. Apart from that it’s a lighthearted witty story with amusingly inept villains and a very high cheesecake content. A very good episode.

Angel Flight once again puts the Angels into a world of glamour. This time they go undercover as airline stewardesses, and they have to go to stewardess school. An old friend of Sabrina’s, a stewardess, is being threatened. And the Angels’ first flight could be their last, unless they can find out why. To continue the policy of providing some titillation in every episode there’s a locker room scene. This was the heyday of airline disaster movies so an episode featuring potential mayhem in the air was a shrewd move. This one stretches credibility a little. Wait a minute, what am I saying? This is Charlie’s Angels. No-one cares about credibility. What we care about is whether it’s fun or not. And it is fun.

It was inevitable that there would eventually be a circus episode. I love mysteries and thriller and horror stories set in circuses but Circus of Terror falls a bit flat, mostly due to an uninspired script and the excessive cheapness of the production that never quite convinces us we’re at the circus. On the plus side Kelly gets to look amazingly hot as a daredevil motorcyclist, Kris looks just as hot as the knife-thrower’s assistant and gets some knives thrown at her some of which are not intended to miss, and Sabrina does a pretty fair mime routine. So it’s enjoyable but slightly disappointing at the same time.

Angel in Love
means what it says. One of the Angels finds love. They’re investigating a murder at a hippie-dippie New Age resort where people go to get in touch with their feelings, and touch each other. That part is handled well - they don’t go overboard spoofing the New Age stuff, they just let its silliness speak for itself. At one of the encounter sessions Sabrina gets touchy-feely with one of the suspects and falls in love with him. She pretty much forgets about the actual case from this point on but it does give Kate Jackson a chance to do some real acting and she does a fine job.

It’s left to Kelly and Kris to solve the case, which they do (with Kris demonstrating her prowess with a lasso). We get some humour and some romance, and we get to see all three Angels in a hot tub. This one is all very California in the 70s but it’s an extremely very good episode.

Unidentified Flying Angels gets the angels involved in the UFO subculture. A wealthy elderly lady has disappeared. She said she might be going to another planet. And Angels have to find out where she actually has gone and it most likely has something to do with a pseudoscientific charlatan and an ex-astronaut. Kris gets to play act being a ditzy blonde bimbo who desperately wants to meet spacemen and learn about inter-galactic sex while the sight of Kelly as a spacelady in an incredibly short silver minidress (or rather micro-dress) is something you won’t soon forget. Lots of fun here.

Angels on the Air takes the Angels into the world of radio where death threats have been made against a female reporter. Kelly takes the reporter’s place and soon finds out that the death threats were meant seriously. Sabrina goes undercover as the radio station’s eye in the sky to check out a prime suspect, a macho Vietnam vet helicopter pilot. Kris pretends to be a biker chick to investigate another suspect, a motorcycle-obsessed hippie cult leader (and they have some very amusing verbal exchanges). Another suspect is a respectable research scientist and Sabrina volunteers to be a guinea pig in his experiments. What’s nice about this story is the way obvious expectations are flipped. Kelly gets to do some really dumb things and some really heroic things. A clever and witty episode.

The subject of Angel Baby is the black market in babies. The Angels get involved when an ex-juvenile delinquent goes AWOL looking for his missing girlfriend. The plot is fairly predictable but there are a few very good moments, both of which give Cheryl Ladd further opportunities to prove she really could act. The scene in which the baby marketeers show Kris three studs in a bar and inform her that they’re the ones selected to impregnate her (which will earn her a cool twenty grand) is memorably sleazy and Kris later gets to do something else she’s never done before and her reaction is harrowing and something you don’t expect in a show that is basically TV fluff. Kate Jackson has some good moments too as Sabrina goes undercover as a rich bitch prospective purchaser of a baby. So overall a very good and surprisingly dark episode.

Angels in the Wings
takes us to Hollywood. During filming of a musical the leading lady Ellen Jason is almost killed in a mysterious accident. And it’s just the latest in a long line of accidents on that supposedly jinxed sound stage. So the Angels have to find out who is trying to kill the star. Is it her leading man, who happens to be her estranged husband? Unfortunately it’s too obvious from the start what’s going on and the red herrings won’t fool the viewer for a moment. There’s an obvious Phantom of the Opera influence at work. On the plus side Cheryl Ladd demonstrates her singing skills (Kris manages to get herself cast as the female second lead in the movie) and she has great chemistry with guest star Gene Barry. This is very much a Kris-centric episode and Cheryl Ladd is terrific. On the minus side there are too many not-very-good songs and the plot is too weak and moves much too slowly.

Magic Fire sounds promising. An arsonist has become known as the Magic Man because nobody can figure out how he starts the fires he sets and the police suspect he’s a professional magician. Which means they suspect that he is in fact famed magician Wendell Muse whose whole act is built around tricks with fire. Muse hires the Angels to prove his innocence. There are quite a few scenes set in the Magic Castle, which was in real life the premier venue for magic acts in LA and these scenes are a highlight. Bosley and Kris do a terrible mentalist act but it’s very amusing and Cheryl Ladd shines. Kelly convinces down-on-his-luck magician The Great Danzini that she can provide him with the one great illusion he needs to restore his reputation.

So far so good. Unfortunately there are problems with this episode. Sabrina goes undercover as a French fashion designer and her accent isn’t amusing it’s just embarrassing and irritating. And the script is lazy and incoherent and has just too many gigantic holes in it and it doesn’t make any sense. Silliness is fine in a Charlie’s Angels story but this is uninspired silliness. So this one just doesn’t quite work.

The Sammy Davis, Jr. Kidnap Caper is very obviously about a plot to kidnap Sammy Davis, Jr. by a gang who probably could not successfully kidnap a kitten. It’s just as well they don’t know what they’re doing because the Angels don’t exactly cover themselves in glory in this episode. They’re supposed to be Davis’s bodyguards but they do a pretty poor job. They’re saved by dumb luck, since the kidnappers snatch a Sammy Davis lookalike (played by Davis of course) by mistake. They’re also saved by the fact that the man behind the plot has done nothing to cover his tracks so an intelligent five-year-old could have solved the case. There’s one very brief scene in which Cheryl Ladd manages to be amusing but apart from that unless you’re a very keen Sammy Davis, Jr. fan this episode is a complete washout - the plot is pitifully thin, the bad guys are stupid without being amusing, the Angels do nothing sensible or interesting.

Angels on Horseback starts with a murder at a dude ranch. Actually the murder took place on the bus on the way to the dude ranch. The murderer had to be one of four people on that bus. So the Angels and Bosley pose as guests. Unfortunately they make it much too obvious that they all know each other and it quickly becomes clear that their covers are blown so things are likely to get dangerous. This one has a pretty solid mystery plot and the Angels conduct the investigation fairly professionally - they pick the weak link among the suspects and really pile the pressure on that person. And there’s a horseback chase finale. Cheryl Ladd shines as usual. Jaclyn Smith has a wonderfully catty moment and shows she knows how to draw blood. All in all an entertaining episode.

Women’s professional tennis provides the background for Game, Set, Death. There have been too many suspicious accidents happening to top players. Kris goes undercover as one of the competitors (luckily she was a decent tennis player at college). Sabrina and Kelly go undercover as a designer of sporting fashions and her model. Since the modelling involves wearing a very revealing outfit you get no prizes for guessing that it’s Kelly who poses as the model (and she looks extremely hot). In this story the Angels actually behave like very competent private investigators. Sabrina has to talk down a killer who’s all set to shoot her and Kris has a very good fight scene and wins through a mixture of brains and sheer determination. Kris also gets to do the driving in a car chase.

This is another episode that does what Charlie’s Angels does best - mocking California flakiness. This time it’s yoga and meditation (one of the players in the tournament is a total New Age fruit loop). Game, Set, Death has the strengths of this series without any of its weaknesses. It’s good stuff.

Hours of Desperation actually has a pretty nifty plot. A jewellery heist goes awry when one of the three robbers (a guy named Murdoch) takes off with the diamonds. So the other two robbers, including a total psycho by the name of Dinsmore, hold Bosley and Sabrina hostage and demand that Kelly and Kris get their stolen diamonds back. Dinsmore has rigged up an explosive device that is strapped to Sabrina - if the other two Angels don’t come back with the diamonds within ten hours he’s going to blow her up. It’s a race against time with some neat plot twists. Kelly and Kris get to do some genuinely smart thinking - their eventual solution to the problem is very clever. In fact all three Angels are forced to be clever. Ray Brenner’s script is excellent. Plus we get to see Kelly clad only in a towel grilling a suspect and Kris in the cutest country and western outfit. A very very good episode.

Diamond in the Rough sounds promising. A bunch of bad guys are after Freddy the Fox because they think he’s stolen a famous diamond from a museum. A reasonable assumption since Freddy was in his day a renowned cat burglar. Freddy is adamant that he is innocent but he does know who has the stolen diamond - a very rich collector. He wants the Angels to help him steal the diamond from the collector and return it to the museum. Then everybody will be happy.

It’s a great idea that could hardly miss. And it sort of works. The biggest problem is Kate Jackson trying to sound like an aristocratic Englishwoman. Jackson could act but she just could not do accents. As a result she comes across as a complete ham. David Doyle is equally cringe-inducing trying to pass as an English gentleman’s gentleman. The pacing is also much too slow. A heist story needs a lengthy setup but in this case it takes a bit too long. On the plus side we get cult movie icon Sid Haig as a rich Arab’s manservant/bodyguard, we get Jaclyn Smith doing the sexy femme fatale thing and we get Cheryl Ladd doing the cat burglar bit and also wearing some fairly revealing outfits. It should have been a real showstopper episode. It isn’t, but it’s still reasonably enjoyable.

In Angels in the Backfield the Angels become jocks. Or jockettes. In fact they become pro football players. Sort of. Amy Jarvis is trying to get a women’s football league started. She has her own team, the Ducks, but someone is terrorising her players. So the Angels have to go undercover. Luckily Kelly and Sabrina played football at the Police Academy. Unluckily for Kris she didn’t but she still has to play for the Ducks. Now with a Charlie’s Angels episode involving women athletes you know there’s going to be a scene in the showers and you know there’s going to be a cat-fight but in this case we get a cat-fight in the showers! Of course there’s nothing but the very mildest titillation but for the Charlie’s Angels audience just knowing that Kris is wearing nothing under that towel was presumably enough. Sabrina starts to take the game very seriously - she’s taken a dislike to the owner of the rival team.

Of course the Angels manage to look gorgeous in their football gear. And Kelly gets to beat the daylights out of a player she doesn’t like. She also gets to fall in love, with a loser. Even she thinks he’s a loser. Maybe she has a thing for broken-down ex-football players. The mystery that has to be solved is why anybody would want to sabotage the Ducks when they’re the worst football team in the history of football and are obviously going to lose anyway. There has to be something else going on. Of course the Angels aren’t the least bit convincing as football players but it’s not a bad story and it’s kinda fun.

Whenever I find myself losing faith in this series along comes an episode like The Sandcastle Murders. A serial killer leaves his victims buried in the sand on the beach, with a sandcastle next to them. Kris gets involved accidentally through a friend, Betsy, who says she knows something but she’s really scared. This episode demonstrates that the series could delve into darker subject matter quite effectively. The three lead actresses have to play things more seriously than usual and acquit themselves well. Even David Doyle tones down the hamminess. There’s a decent mystery plot with several convincing suspects (one of the suspects lives above a merry-go-round which adds a nice touch). Sabrina undercover as a bag lady is a brief highlight. There are a couple of nicely creepy scenes. A very good episode.

Angel Blues starts with the death of famous country singer Amy Waters. Her father refuses to believe it was a drug overdose and hires Charlie’s detective agency to prove it. This one has a strong mystery plot. Amy was involved with some shady people any of whom could have killed her. Amy spent the last night of her life riding around for hours in a cab and Kris’s job is to retrace her movements. As Kris checks out the places at which Amy stopped on that night the plot slowly comes together. Sabrina and Kelly are tailing Kris and as she uncovers the leads the other two Angels follow them up. And while they’re tailing Kris someone is tailing them. It will take about two-and-a-half hours to retrace all Amy’s movements and in that time the Angels will have to solve the case. It’s a good structural technique and it works well.

This is a tightly constructed story with good plot twists. And the Angels (who sometimes make dumb mistakes in other episodes) are totally professional and they even remember that they were trained as police officers so they’re allowed to know how to fight. A great episode. In fact the best of the season.

Mother Goose Is Running for His Life takes the angels into a strange and dangerous world - the world of toys. Someone is trying to take over Leland Swinnerton’s toy company and they’ll stop at nothing. It’s dog-eat-dog in the toy business. Sabrina romances a crazed toy designer, Kelly turns to crime and Kris gets to prove (quite adorably) that she’s a real doll. Toy companies have been used as settings for murder and mayhem before but this one has a solid plot and all three Angels shine (and do their jobs very competently) and with murderous toys and plots hatched in English pubs and gangsters it all works delightfully. After two extremely good darker-tinged episodes this equally good light-hearted outing is a nice change of pace.

In Little Angels of the Night three hookers have been murdered so the Angels have to go undercover as ladies of the night. They come up with all sorts of amusing excuses not to actually have any clients. This is one of those stories in which you have to try really hard not to think about the plot which is much too contrived. It’s also an episode that sets up three plausible suspects, all with suitably creepy vibes, but then reveals the identity of the killer too early. It’s rather adult-themed with a casual and extraordinarily judgment-free acceptance of prostitution and (very surprisingly for this era) the Angels make no attempt to save any of the girls from their life of vice. In fact the they’re delighted that the girls can get back to work! This one is a very mixed bag.

The Jade Trap starts with a cat burglary and a murder, which are connected but maybe not in the obvious way. Both crimes take place in a seafront residential hotel. The suave cat burglar has an accomplice, his elderly mother (played with panache by Lureen Tuttle). The murderer is a gigolo (played by Dirk Benedict) who’s peeved because the woman who’s keeping him won’t buy him a yacht. The guest performances are great, the characters are colourful and supremely decadent. Bosley makes a mess of things as an auctioneer, Kelly falls in love (with the wrong man again), Cheryl Ladd does the world’s worst Swedish accent but gets away with it because she’s Cheryl Ladd and totally awesome. It’s all kind of fun.

With Angels on the Run we’re in thriller territory. After a minor car accident a guy throws a package into Larry Cantrell’s dump truck. Then they kidnap Larry. It seems that maybe that package was important. If the Angels had known about the package at the start the case would have been solved immediately. Due to a misunderstanding the bad guys think Kelly is Cantrell’s wife so they kidnap her too. There are lots of comic touches that work reasonably well - Doyle and Mrs Chicken, Larry’s numerous girlfriends (one of whom wants to flatten Sabrina with her tractor), Kris in a charming exchange with a bartender. There’s plenty of sexual innuendo. The Angels make a mess of things when they let Kelly get snatched but they get their act together at the end. Not a great episode but pretty enjoyable.

Antique Angels has a promising initial setup - a gang using a vintage car and a movie camera to bluff their way past a security guard to steal some new experimental rocket fuel. There are some other good moments. There’s the bad guys dressed as gangsters holding Kris hostage being able to do openly because they explain that they’re pretending to be bank robbers (for an antique car rally) so they’re just pretending to hold her hostage. There’s a car chase with antique cars. But somehow it just doesn’t gel. It doesn’t generate the fun that it should generate. The pacing is much too slow and the tone is all over the place. It just doesn’t work.

Final Thoughts

The second season is a mixture of some very good episodes and several real clunkers but there’s Cheryl Ladd’s awesomeness to compensate. And Charlie’s Angels remains an iconic pop culture moment. Recommended.

I reviewed season one some years back.