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.

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