Tuesday, November 19, 2019

I Still Believe in Angels by Eric Grigs

With the Mill Creek Blu-ray release of the original series that ran for five seasons and 110 episodes from 1976 - 81, we get to experience all the ass kicking and hair flipping of Charlie’s Angels in glorious high definition. Despite the network brass initially not having faith in a show with three female leads, it was a ratings juggernaut right out of the gate.

America found itself in the grips of Angel fever—and at its peak in the late 70s, it was unstoppable. The appeal cut across demographics: women wanted to look like the Angels, men wanted to be with them. The hair, makeup, and fashion budget for each episode was astronomical. Critics would derogatorily describe the show as “jiggle TV”—peddling sex and style over substance. And while our Angels do spend plenty of screen time in bikinis, there was much more at play here than simply depicting beautiful women as objects—just look to the opening credits. Of course they were beautiful, but in a time when the system only saw them as “little girls” and unable to take on the “hazardous duties” of being a cop, they left the police force to be more. Admittedly, if you want to, it’s easy to miss the groundbreaking women’s empowerment themes wrapped in light stories full of camp. But the ride-or-die friendship and teamwork of the three leads—instead of more romance plotlines for women—was central to its success. The franchise has continued over the years because of its ability to tap into depictions of women as equals with agency: smart, capable, and yes, sexy on their own terms. There’s something for everyone here, delivered with one big knowing wink.

I grew up obsessively watching Charlie’s Angels in syndication after school in the early 80s (my first appointment TV!), then revisiting episodes frequently through adulthood. Here are my thoughts on some essential highlights and unique oddities that make repeat viewings of Charlie’s original Angels so enjoyable, over four decades later.


Secret covers and beautiful destinations.
Leonard Goldberg has said the writers largely crafted the scripts around the heavenly situations the three detectives were dropped into—exotic locales (for the time) like Hawaii and Vegas; wealthy activities like skiing, car racing, and jewel thieving; and deep undercover assignments like impersonating psychics, models, socialites, disco dance instructors, models, circus performers, football players, military cadets, models, and more. Did I mention they went undercover as models? Yeah, that happened a lot. One of the biggest reasons to tune in each week was to discover where the Angels would go next.
Assignments by speakerphone.
Who wouldn’t actually prefer to see less of their boss? The staple catchphrase “Good morning, Charlie” comes from the mystery-man Charlie introducing each new case by phone, never seen in person. Every season the network begged the writers to show Charlie for a ratings gimmick. It’s amazing it never happened in the five year run. In fact, there’s only one episode John Forsythe’s voice doesn’t make an “appearance.” Reportedly, he never set foot on set, recording all his lines separately on another soundstage. How very Charlie!

Cavalcade of guest stars. 
Keep an eye out for “before they were stars” appearances from Kim Cattrall, Tom Selleck, Kim Basinger, Tommy Lee Jones, and more. In addition, late-career celebrities like Dean Martin, Christopher Lee, Cesar Romero, Sammy Davis Jr., Tab Hunter, and others show up regularly. But beyond then-current and future A-listers, watch for repeat offenders. Passing through with regularity, they’re those 70s and 80s character actors who show up in all the Aaron Spelling productions of the era—and here you’ll get the pleasure of seeing them pop up during the show’s run often as completely different characters. Don’t go looking for continuity here; you won’t find it. But that’s part of the charm and fun. 
Melodramatic peril.
Listen closely for the “canned scream” when a woman is in danger—whether it’s fright, peril, or murder, the sound engineers insert the same sound clip of a woman screaming. Once you hear it, it can’t be unheard—and now you’ll notice it every time. 

Ten watching recommendations.
Essential watch: “Angels in Chains” (S1, E4)
Even reruns of this episode kept delivering big ratings for ABC. Likely the most referenced episode in its history, the plot centers on the original trio escaping a prison, chained together. (Bonus prison watch: Not one to be left out, Kris gets her chance at women-in-prison peril a few seasons later, terrorized by cult favorite Shirley Stoler in “Caged Angel.”)
Quality watch: “Night of the Strangler” (S1, E3)
Most people view the first season as its pinnacle, and even though “Chains” gets the most attention, this one is a solid entry, as the stakes are high and the suspense developed on the way toward solving the mystery of whodunit is remarkably well-written.

Time capsule watch: “Angels on Wheels” (S1, E12)
The national sensation that was Farrah’s hair is in full effect. Episodes where things specific to 70s culture show up—like roller derby here—is cause for celebration.

Swingin’ watch: “Angels in Vegas” (S3, E1)
My personal favorite. This two-parter includes a special title sequence drenched in Vegas glitz backed by the theme song set to a new arrangement by Henry Mancini. Dropping in: a late-career Dino (as the client and a casino owner) and Dick Sargent (Betwitched’s second Darren). Extra goodies: Sabrina gets a perm and Cheryl Ladd sings!
Death by sauna watch: “Angels in Springtime” (S3, E4)
The villains were always manly-looking or abrasive women—the exact opposite of our Angels. Watch veteran actor Mercedes McCambridge chew the scenery and attempt quite the memorable getaway. Plus, Kris is almost sent to heaven twice—by being trapped in a steam room first and murdered with hot towels later. Yes, smothered in hot towels.

Camp watch: “Avenging Angel” (S4, E3)
You know how it goes when your past enemies come back to shoot you up with heroin while you sleep at night so that you become an addict? Kelly does. It sounds like I made that up, but it happened. Jaclyn Smith gives it her acting all.
Court mandated return watch: “Fallen Angel” (S4, E5)
The settlement resulting from Farrah breaking her contract after only one season required her to make six guest appearances in seasons three and four. In this one, Jill gets involved with a suave jewel thief, future James Bond Timothy Dalton.
Paranormal watch: “Of Ghosts and Angels” (S4, E13)
Shelley Hack only survived one season as an Angel, but here’s one of her best. A great retro classic made for Halloween viewing.

The call is coming from inside watch: “Angel on the Line” (S5, E10)
This telephone dating club is like an evil pre-internet eHarmony that I wish still existed.
Mind control watch: “Attack Angels” (S5, E13)
Tanya Roberts as Julie doesn’t ever seem to get enough credit, but shines in this episode as she copes with being hypnotized and used as a deadly weapon!

Episode curiosities.
Target practice. Smith’s Kelly Garrett was shot in the head twice—like bookends, in season one and season five. The second time, her five-year contract was up, and it was planned her character would not survive. That “what if” would have been a strange and uncharacteristically dark end to the fifth season. Titled “Let Our Angel Live”—they did, but the show got the axe, and its cancellation played a part in Kelly’s survival so she would live on happily in syndication.

Gender swapping roles before it was trendy. “Toni’s Boys” was a backdoor pilot for male Angels that was never picked up—and once you see how milquetoast Barbra Stanwyck’s Boys are, you’ll quickly see why.


What about Bosley? Alongside Jaclyn Smith, David Doyle was the only actor to appear in every episode of the 5-year run, and his genuine grace and charm was an essential ingredient to the show’s recipe. Cheryl Ladd has credited Doyle with helping her weather the Farrah-replacement media storm and on-set difficulties. In ”Angels in Waiting,” Bosley takes umbrage at being thought of as too predictable by the Angels and subsequently becomes the center of this week’s adventure and mystery.
Off-brand. The two-parter “One Love, Two Angels” is a departure in tone—likely to compete with the other nighttime soaps like Dynasty and Dallas gaining popularity at the time. It’s odd to see Kelly and Kris fighting over Patrick Duffy. Maybe the moral of the story is putting a man above girl power doesn’t end well.

Worst episode? Likely it’s “Marathon Angels”—the episode that pushed Kate Jackson over the edge to quit. She already was upset about not being given flexibility by producers to take the role in Kramer vs. Kramer (which eventuality won Meryl Streep the Oscar). You can see how uninvolved Sabrina’s character is—but she has a point, there’s barely a plot here, as the Angels must literally chase down the villains in a race.

A cruise on the Pacific Princess. The Angels take a trip on the Love Boat in season four when they introduce new Angel Shelley Hack, who is given surprisingly little to do for her big coming out.

Most creative attempted murder. Lastly, don’t miss Cheryl Ladd’s stunt double wrestling a rubber alligator to save Jamie Lee Curtis from certain death after falling off a boobytrapped bridge in “Winning is for Losers.” 

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