Charlie’s Angels debuted on ABC in 1976, the year our country turned 200 and I turned 12.
The timing could not have been better, as the three foxy crime fighters (esp the agonizingly beautiful Jaclyn Smith) were the perfect conductresses for the puberty train my friends and I were embarking upon. Every Wednesday at 9 p.m. was a one-hour blur of the heroines in bikinis, hot pants, tight halter tops and any other revealing get-up necessary to solve the case. Plus at least one of the women would be tied up, so our prepubescent minds got a much-needed tutorial in bondage fetish. In short, the show provided jet fuel to the wet-dream rockets of our young minds.
But I don’t think I ever quite got what Charlie’s Angels meant to women until over a quarter-century later when I took a date to see Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, the second feature starring Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu as the titular detectives. My companion rhapsodized at length how while growing up, the three original gorgeous gumshoes were her role-models. Jill (Farrah Fawcett), Sabrina (Kate Jackson) and Kelly (the aforementioned Smith) got to hang out in a well-appointed house, don hot clothes, drive sweet cars (well, new Mustangs anyway) and, when their unseen surrogate father Charlie (John Forsythe) and his husky eunuch Bosley (David Doyle) assigned them a case, got to kick ass on a succession of some of the luckiest stuntmen in history. Where I tuned in just to ogle the fine flesh on display, girls and young women were watching because, at last, they had their fantasy selves. What James Bond was for me and lots of other boys, Jill, Kelly and Sabrina were for the young ladies.
There had been other female PI’s on TV. In 1965, Anne Francis portrayed gadget-wielding, ocelot-loving Honey West, and both Get Christie Love (starring Teresa Graves) and Police Woman (starring Angie Dickinson) debuted in ’74. What made Charlie’s Angels different was the group angle. While men fantasize at being steely bad ass loners, women tend to fantasize about doing things in groups. (Sex In the City, anyone? Or Bridesmaids?) Although mega-producer and vulgarian extraordinaire Aaron Spelling’s name is most frequently associated with Charlie’s Angels, the show was actually created by the well-regarded team of Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts. They had previously created Mannix, hands-down the best private eye series ever, so they knew their onions. Although Goff and Roberts were men in their sixties they realized a trio of sexy but highly capable sleuths would make for a highly original dynamic, attracting both a male and female audience albeit for different reasons. And so a successful franchise was born, the original series lasting through five seasons, six angels (Fawcett would leave after the first season, replaced by Cheryl Ladd, and after a well-publicized falling out, Jackson would leave after the third season, replaced first by Shelley Hack and then Tanya Roberts), and the two McG-directed, Barrymore-produced features.
Barrymore also produces the reincarnated Charlie’s Angels which debuts this season on ABC. However, unlike the movies, which featured some campy humor and surprisingly sharp action sequences (particularly in the underrated second installment), the new series is an utter drag. I knew it would be a long hour when the pilot opened not on the angels’ past stomping ground of L.A., but on the neon nightscape of South Beach. C’mon, TV, the whole Miami thing is so played out. Anyone who’s ever been there knows as soon as you’re two blocks from the oceanfront the place becomes Detroit, only with more Cubans. Not helping is all the split-screen in a cliché attempt to show off the glitz and second-hand sophistication of pretty extras amid poolside bars and decadent late night soirees.
We quickly meet our three ’11 model angels: Abby (Rachael Taylor), tarnished rich girl turned pickpocket/jewel thief/chick who scales walls a lot; Kate (Annie Illonzeh), yet another cop wrongly charged with corruption (although in the prologue she appears to take dirty money, I guaran-damn-tee you the network doesn’t have the guts to make her truly corrupt and it will be a frame-up); and Gloria (Nadine Velazquez), an ex-Marine accused of war crimes. If you’ve seen any promos for the show, then you know not to get too attached to Gloria. No sooner do the gals rescue a kidnapped teen from human traffickers than Gloria and her glorious vintage muscle car get blown up.
Cue the remaining two woman slapping mags into their cute mini-Glocks and threatening to go all Salt on the badguys, but Charlie (an incredibly wasted Victor Garber) cautions the team against seeking vengeance. At this point, I should mention Bosley. No longer a genial, middle-aged enabler of rich men and kept women, he’s now a ripped Latino computer whiz/martial artist played by a varnished cedar plank called John Rodriguez. I guess he’s there for “balance,” i.e. the female audience can drink in this tall cocktail of a man while the male audience can drool over the women. This only demonstrates how clueless the new series is, as the whole appeal of the original show was the angels solving mysteries and kicking butt without a guy’s help. Now they have a dude tagging along and doing all the cool stuff that was previously the exclusive purview of our three heroines. It’s like rebooting Batman and making Alfred the butler a 20-something black belt who’s the equal of the caped crusader. (Sorry if I geeked out there. It happens, esp when Batman is concerned.)
Tracking Gloria’s killer and car-blower-upper, the Angels come upon Eve (Minka Kelly, seriously slumming since Friday Night Lights), a car thief and master of all things automotive, who was Gloria’s best friend and is now on the vengeance wagon herself. After a quick bit of slapping and hair-pullery masquerading as krav maga, Eve proves herself as tough as she is thin and that’s qualification enough to don the sheer sundress that passes as a uniform for Townshend Investigations. She gets captured by the big bad human trafficker who traumatized her as a kid in South America (don’t ask), but she’s rescued by the other angels and shows off those peerless driving skills we’ve been hearing so much about by hopping in a 500-horsepower Corvette Z06 to give chase…while the villain makes his escape on foot. Yeah, you read that right. Anyway, Eve slams the sports car into the baddie and makes the world safe for pouty waifs in belly shirts everywhere.
This is just weak tea no matter how much visual sugar and lemon you dump in. Only Kelly exudes any trace of sexuality, but her character is just so much lovely crepe paper. With some real talent behind the scenes, ABC could have reinvigorated the franchise and created role-models for another generation. Think what Joss Whedon or J.J. Abrams could’ve done with this. Instead, the new Charlie’s Angels is a shiny new car with a classic moniker but no horsepower under the hood.