[18 February 2014]
Charlie’s Angels appeared at a strange and complex moment in American social and cultural history.
Second wave feminism ran at high tide in American culture when Jill, Kelly and Sabrina started catching the bad guys. Back in 1965, Griswold v. Connecticut struck down state laws that limited women’s access to contraception. In 1973, Roe v. Wade similarly overturned state laws limiting reproductive rights. Full political and economic equality seemed on its way. By 1976 when Charlie’s Angels premiered, there was no reason to believe that the Equal Rights Amendment would fail.
When Aaron Spelling and fellow producer Leonard Goldberg sent forth the Angels, with sex symbol Farrah Fawcett in the lead, they faced a storm of criticism from feminist critics who labeled the show “Jiggle TV”.
Media critics influenced by second wave feminism had every reason to be angry. Every episode began with the following: “Once upon a time there were three little girls who went to the police academy.” These “three little girls” end up working for Charlie Townsend, international man of mystery, whose voice we hear over the phone with occasional glimpses of his own glamorous lifestyle.
Charlie functions as a stand-in for the Playboy lifestyle, Hugh Hefner running a detective agency. We never see his face but we do see a variety of beautiful women bringing him drinks by the pool or about to be sexually harassed by him as they come in for a job interview. The camera shows us all this from Charlie’s perspective, only one example of perhaps the most voyeuristic camera work in network TV history.
There have been efforts to defend the Angels as something of an ironic comment on past portrayals of women on television. They are, after all, action heroes. Their adventures are framed by the idea that, as the opening credits montage tells us, they faced discrimination in the LAPD but now can show their serious crime-fighting skills.
Literary scholar Whitney Womack has made the strongest case for reading Charlie’s Angels with more love than horror. In an essay for Sherrie A. Inness’ Disco Divas: Women and Popular Culture in the 1970s, Womack admits that the show did not “set out to raise America’s feminist consciousness.” She does make the case that elements of the show constituted a kind of fantasy of “female community and sisterhood.” She also claims that the Angels don’t spend all their time “running around in bathing suits and tube tops” and often appeared “surprisingly chaste” in their dress.
Seeing the first season episode by episode suggests that more nuanced readings of Charlie’s Angels are too friendly. Critics in the ‘70s got it right. Contrary to Womack’s point, the Angels are not especially “chaste” in their dress. There may not be many bikinis around, but there are plenty of tight-fitting t-shirts functioning as staged wardrobe malfunctions. Hilariously short skirts abound. And, Angels aside, there are plenty of female characters whose bodies the camera lingers over as they lounge in nightgowns and short shorts.
Of course, the Angels are still the heroes. Skills other than perfectly sculptured bodies allow them to defeat their foes. But even this point seems problematic episode by episode. It is true that individual narratives end with punishment for mostly male evildoers. However, the Angels themselves are punished along the way.
In the episode “Lady Killer”, a fairly transparent version of a Playboy Club becomes a scene of a series of murders of “Feline Girls”, a stand-in for Playboy Bunnies. Fawcett goes undercover as a Feline and a centerfold and its hard not to read this as an excuse to get Fawcett into a cat outfit. She’s not only harassed but also threatened with violence.
Other than being notable for including a ridiculous scene involving Jill almost being murdered with an exploding tennis ball (and no one seems to think it odd that a tennis ball blew up in her face), “Lady Killer” seems like an adolescent commentary on second wave feminism’s critique of popular culture. NOW leader Gloria Steinem had gone undercover in the ‘60s at an actual Playboy club and written the famous exposé “A Bunny’s Tale”. In the world of Charlie’s Angels, Steinem has become Farrah.
The series quite literally becomes about punishing the Angels at the midpoint of season 1. At least two episodes, “To Kill and Angel” and “Target: Angel” center on the idea of the Angels as themselves the focus of male violence. Of course, it’s not unusual for action heroes to have a target on their backs. But these episodes have a damsel in distress quality about them, women presented as victims rather than targets. As Sabrina says at one point in episode, “I’m beginning to feel like an endangered species.”
Episode four, “Angels in Chains” became one of the most controversial episodes. The episode presaged how the series would borrow directly from grindhouse /drive-in fare, exploitation films that had long been part of the underground of American cultural life. “Angels in Chains” obviously drew from the women in prison genre, complete with butch prison guards and a scene, much commented on at the time, in which the Angels are forced to strip.
It’s worth noting that, the problematic politics of the series aside, this is not great TV. Many of the individual episodes not only are bad, they are terrible in a baroque fashion. At least one mid-season moment has Kelly wandering around an amusement Park, dizzy because she’s actually been shot in the head (her skull is bandaged as she stumbles around), and trying to find a little boy whose trying to collect items from a fairy tale. I have no desire to explain how the plot gets us to this point and, trust me, you don’t want to know.
There are no special features or documentary materials with Season one. This is too bad for the release of a cult TV hit important enough of cultural history to have two feature films and a (failed) television reboot. The lack of bonus materials fits with the rushed feeling of the DVD set. The prints used are of fairly poor quality and haven’t had any clean up (you’ll see splotchy backgrounds in almost every episode).
One last point that’s really ancillary to Charlie’s Angels in some ways but will influence how you respond to this release. It’s hard to care about shows like this beyond nostalgia. They don’t do it for us on a basic level.
We’ve become used to work based on David Simon’s The Wire and The Sopranos. TV that makes us care about plot and writing and, above all the characters. The complexity of these characters lives entrances us, pull us down wormholes of speculation about them and their motivations.
TV before this era doesn’t capture us in the same way. Well, M.A.S.H. does. So does Archie Bunker. Slightly later, so does Hill Streets Blues. This is because Hawkeye and Radar and Archie and Edith make us care about them in a way its impossible to care about the cartoonish Jill, Sabrina and Kelly.
Its not that we don’t love shows from the same era. But Lee Major’s Six Million Dollar Man ,or Charlie’s Angels, are only loved insofar as they evoke the moment that they came from, childhood for us aging Gen X’ers.
In other words, there wasn’t a moment of screening season one that my enjoyment grew from anything other than nostalgia, anything other than the pleasure in the act of watching Charlie’s Angels rather than anything inherent to the series. So this is bad TV, even if it’s a good primary source for a recent, but somewhat distant feeling, historical moment.