Reviews

Jiggle TV? 'Charlie's Angels'

It's worth noting that, the problematic politics of the series aside, this is not great TV.


Charlie's Angels: Season One

Distributor: Sony
Cast: Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith, David Doyle
Network: ABC
Release date: 2014-01-28
Amazon

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.

1

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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