“I expect to be erect any time now.”
“An eighth-grader’s mind trapped in an eighth-grader’s body.” That’s how one critic summed up Aaron Spelling. Aaron had him killed, of course. When your guest house is the size of the Taj Mahal, you don’t take shit from no-name pencil necks who wouldn’t know a deferred stock option if it bit them in the ass.
But now that Aaron has kicked the bucket, I can afford to be brave, and tell you what I actually thought of that undersized, conniving little shit. There have been many contributors to that seething mass of effluvia known as American popular culture, but few men — very few men — have given as much as Aaron Spelling. The Mod Squad, Starsky and Hutch, Dynasty, The Love Boat, Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, Charmed — the list is almost endless. But certainly the greatest — and, almost thirty years after of its creation, quite possibly the largest single zircon in America’s great tiara of kitsch — is Charlie’s Angels.
The Charlie’s Angels œuvre has been leaking out on DVD at a slow pace over the past several years, but now that Volume III has been released, I think we have a sufficient body of work to support a balanced appraisal of Spellings’ achievement. Fortunately, Jack Condon and David Hofstede’s definitive work, Charlie’s Angels Casebook,1 provides us with all the backstory we need.
It’s only fitting that Spelling and producing partner Leonard Goldberg hatched the idea for the Angels in the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Spelling was looking for a replacement for The Rookies, the rebel-cops-in-uniform show he had used as a follow-up to his rebel-cops-out-of-uniform classic, The Mod Squad. Spelling, always a sucker for chicks in black leather,2 was fascinated by the success of Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel character in the cult favorite The Avengers, and wanted to hook that S&M vibe to the power of three that had served him so well in both The Mod Squad and The Rookies.
Spelling already had one girl in mind — Kate Jackson, the most popular member of the cast of The Rookies. (Kate did not play a rookie, but rather a rookie’s wife. To get her into the stories, the writers had her kidnapped on a regular basis.) Jackson was ultimately matched with a pair of dueling shampoo queens, Breck Girl Jaclyn Smith and the Wella Balsam “Great Balls of Comfort” gal Farrah Fawcett-Majors, to create the original angels — Sabrina Duncan, Kelly Garrett, and Jill Monroe. Easygoing character actor David Doyle was chosen to play Bosley, the amiable eunuch/pimp3 who dials the phones and picks up the tab for the girls, while John Forsythe was recruited to supply the voice of Charlie after Gig Young drank himself out of the job.
To write the script for a movie of the week pilot, Spelling and Goldberg settled on Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, who earned themselves a small but permanent niche in the history books by scripting the Raoul Walsh-James Cagney classic, White Heat.4
According to Condon and Hofstede, Charlie’s Angels suffered from constant turnover in producers, writers, and directors during its first season, probably because no one could stomach Spellings’ constant demand for cheese n’ sleaze. Fortunately for those of us who enjoy slow-motion train wrecks, Spelling kept the project breathing if not flourishing.5
It was the first half-dozen episodes that made the show, that gave it enough momentum to keep rumbling through American consciousness for five long years, a slo-mo runaway freight train with long blonde curls and champagne highlights. Because in the beginning it was all about the hair. Farrah’s “interrupted flying waterfall” was the most complex hairdo to hit Western Civilization since Marie Antoinette bought the big one back in 1793.6 And Farrah did it all with her own hair.7
The hair alone was more than enough. To see a chick with hair like that just talking, and sometimes even walking and talking at the same time, well, you just couldn’t tear your eyes from the screen. But the show improved on the unimprovable with sleaze fests like “Night of the Strangler” and, of course, “Angels in Chains,” Aaron Spelling’s masterpiece and surely the cheesiest 60 minutes in the history of the cathode ray tube.
Guest star Kim Basinger adds surprisingly little to the show, appearing as an inmate on a southern prison farm. But once the girls get themselves arrested, we’re on an eye-popping, jaw-dropping, heart-stopping roller-coaster ride straight to the lower depths of southern-fried decadence, heavy on the grits and gravy.
All the clichés are firmly in place: the fat southern sheriff; the leering, inbred deputy; the tall, dykey prison guard; the genteel, heartless warden. But anybody can load a script with clichés. Only a genius has the guts to beat you over the head with them.
The crème de la crème, of course, is the “disinfecting” scene. The girls, newly arrived on the farm, are forced to strip naked and put on cheap prison smocks. But that’s not enough for Aaron. Madame runs a clean prison — no lice, no crabs, no fleas, no bedbugs, no vermin of any kind. So, to our amazement and delight, one by one, the girls are forced to open their smocks while Butch McGuard sprays their crotches with bug juice pumped from a five-gallon tank.
In a classic Charlie’s Angels touch, Farrah maintains her perfect do despite absolutely miserable conditions, and the girls manage to turn the tables on their loathsome captors, who frankly don’t seem to be paying much attention most of the time, a trait common to nearly all the criminals the girls will encounter over the next five years.
“Angels in Chains” was preceded by the almost-as-good “Night of the Strangler” (the title alone is a classic), which gave Jaclyn Smith a chance to show what she was made of. Despite the enormous press at the time given to “jiggle TV,” largely due to the fact that Farrah didn’t wear a bra,8 both Farrah and Kate were pretty fussy about the commodification-of-sex thing, and refused to appear in a bathing suit of any kind. Jaclyn, on the other hand, despite her CEO trophy wife/country club queen demeanor, was remarkably unsentimental about the show. As long as the checks cleared, she’d do just about anything Aaron asked. Smith not only wore bikinis, she wrestled in them! You go girl! You go!9
Naturally, it was too good to last. Pressure, from the network, the sponsors, and, quite likely, the girls themselves, led to a steady decline in the sleaze n’ cheese, with the sad result that most of the shows aren’t even entertainingly bad.10 They’re just boring.
Angels surely had one of the unhappiest sets of any hit series. Farrah was so big that she wanted off. Kate was pissed because she had expected the show to be largely about her. Instead, she was “the smart one,” the ugly duckling forever playing catch-up to two beauty queens. Constant turnover in producers, directors, and writers meant a constant slide to the lowest common denominator.
Spelling himself was probably the worst influence. All that squabbling! Who needs it! Why waste time and money on a show that sells itself? Just get the hair right and the public will come!11 The rest is noise!
And much of the rest was noise. Spelling rarely wasted money on such non-essentials as scripts, production values, or actors. In contrast to standard TV practice, aside from an occasional “giant” like Dean Martin,12 the “guest stars” were never given billing at the opening of the show. Often, they weren’t actors at all, but extras — awkward, aging, overweight dudes in sansabelt slacks and bad toupees — who spent the entire show silently lurking in cars, trying to look menacing.
Yeah, but still. There are a few highlights, like the two-part opener for the second season, “Angels in Paradise,” with France Nuyen, looking great in a bikini as crime queen “Leilani Sako.” To fight her, both Jaclyn and newcomer Cheryl Ladd (as “Chris Monroe,” Jill’s sister) suit up as well.
The third season is better, despite the lugubrious opener, “Angels in Vegas,” that starred el Dino. “Angels in Springtime” puts the girls in an elite health spa, with hilarious results — a sort of “Angels in Chains” with facials. Cheryl, wearing very short short-shorts is menaced by “Zora,” a mountainous masseuse with an eye for little girls: “That’s a pretty little neck you’ve got there. I’ll bet it would snap real easy!”13 Jaclyn, working undercover as a guest, faces a more genteel violation at the hands of a butch doctor come to administer her “examination.” The doc takes out her stethoscope and blows on it caressingly before putting her blue-veined hands on Jackie’s fair white bosom. “There,” she gloats, “now it won’t be so cold.”
Nothing brought out the show’s inner cheesiness better than an all-chick setting. “Teen Angel,” another classic from the third season, is almost as good/bad as it sounds. The girls go undercover at a swanky girl’s school, Broadmoor College, to investigate a murder. Cheryl, posing as a student, encounters Mr. Blackmoor (Jack Fletcher), founder and president, an outrageous old fop who looks like he’s returning from a month of sherry-sipping at an Oscar Wilde fest. “You look so pretty, my dear,” the old bottom-fondler tells her. “You’ve managed to capture the Blackmoor look very well.” He then stumbles off, presumably in search of more bottoms to fondle, and never reappears.
Cheryl does look cute (she always does), but in her chic, quasi-military outfit, looks nothing like the other girls, who, indeed, look nothing like one another. Cheryl penetrates a corrupt coterie led by “Donna” (Audrey Landers), a teen queen bee/dominatrix who slaps the other girls around and threatens to tell their secrets. The young actresses hired to play the Blackmoor girls, dressed as though they had to provide their own wardrobes, struggle to act grown-up and “bad,” with very little help from the writers or anyone else — a typical Angels production.
The third season featured a surprisingly, almost stunningly good two-parter, “Terror on Skis,” supposedly dreamed up by producer/writer Ed Lasko14) so that his wife could go skiing on company time. Most of Lasko’s scripts fell rather easily into the “lame” category, so the consistent intelligence of this script — certainly the only Angels episode that could be described as “intelligent” — catches a wisecracking cynic like me completely off-guard. It’s an elaborately crafted story, with all three angels, and Bos too, “helping” someone with a personal problem in classic TV style.15
The Angels go undercover to aid in the protection of Kennedyesque White House aide Carl Hansworth (Dennis Cole) a spoiled pretty boy bursting with idealism and ego who won’t have his vacation interrupted by something as trivial as a terrorist plot that has already claimed the life of one Secret Service agent. Kelly romances Carl, Bree romances a cute terrorist named Paolo (Cesare Danova), while Chris gets stuck with a bitter Secret Service agent. “I get so sick of playing nursemaid for these buttoned-down types who can’t see past their own press releases,” he growls, watching Carl frolic in the snow. “I don’t know,” says Chris, displaying a shrewd appreciation for la comédie humaine that belies her tender years, “he looks like he wants to do good and noble deeds.”
And, while Chris is restoring the bitter agent’s faith in humanity, Bree, kidnapped by Paolo, convinces him that he’s let his idealism curdle into fanaticism. “It used to mean something,” she tells him, “but it doesn’t any more.” No, it wouldn’t work, but, for Charlie’s Angels, it’s awfully coherent. Nice work, Ed!16
All Things Must Change
During the third season, Kate Jackson was offered the lead role in Kramer vs. Kramer,17 one of the hottest flicks of the year, but Spelling wouldn’t let her take the time off. Meryl Streep got the part instead, opposite Dustin Hoffman. Kramer won five Oscars, including trophies for both Hoffman and Streep. If Jackson watched the Academy Awards, she must have been swilling vodka martinis and screaming “Bring me the head of Aaron Spelling!”
So Kate left, replaced by Shelley Hack as “Tiffany Welles,” one of my favorite angels. It comes as a bit of a shock to learn from Condon and Hofstede that poor Shelley was the only angel to endure the ignominious fate of being fired. Apparently, she failed to meet the show’s admittedly minimal standards for acting, not that I ever noticed.18
After Shelley came Tanya Roberts, a seriously misguided attempt to give the show a little street cred, which was rather like trying to give street cred to Ronald Firbank, except not so easy. By the fifth season, it was obvious to the dimmest observer (i.e., me) that the show was on its last legs. Yeah, the Angels died in the end, but, like all the great ones, they died hard.
Farrah, possessed of the most famous hyphen in showbiz history,19 had a famously erratic career, including several big-screen disasters, numerous movie of the week comebacks on TV, a nude film for Playboy, and a public meltdown on Letterman. She’s now battling cancer, which makes it harder to make fun of her.
Kate Jackson, though very loud in her desire to “act,” made only one “serious” film, Making Love, in 1982, which gave her the seriously thankless role of a woman whose husband leaves her, for another man!20 After that she settled comfortably into another series, Scarecrow and Mrs. King, leaving the show in its fourth year while coping with breast cancer.
Jaclyn Smith, the most centered of the Angels, seemed to get exactly what she wanted, a long, long career as the queen of the made-for-TV movie.21 Her cameo as “the Spirit of Kelly” in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, appearing to restore the soul of fucked-up angel Drew Barrymore, is a high mark in postwar kitsch.
Cheryl Ladd,22 still working today in the Vegas TV series on NBC, followed Jackie’s footsteps, knocking out several dozen of made-for-TV flicks. Shelley Hack, the only angel who’s really retired, went the made-for-TV route as well, but basically hung it up in the late nineties.
Tanya Roberts starred in the famously bad Sheena in 1984, which inspired one of Pauline Kael’s least admired reviews,23 was the “Bond girl” in A View to a Kill in 1985, and stumbled around in direct-to-video softcore porn before settling into a long-running gig on That Seventies Show.
The two gaudy Charlie’s Angels movies, Charlie’s Angels and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, despite frequent low points, are a definite must-see. Anyone who doesn’t want to watch Lucy Liu take off a motorcycle helmet or see Cameron Diaz dance in her underwear doesn’t deserve to be an American.24
- “Definitive” is right! Jaclyn Smith wrote the introduction! Sure, it’s only five fucking paragraphs, but it’s five fucking paragraphs by fucking Jaclyn Smith! [↩]
- While I’m pissing so hard on poor Aaron, I ought to point out that early in his career he produced a seriously sophisticated show (at least I thought so as a teenager), Burke’s Law, with Gene Barry as Amos Burke, a millionaire police chief in San Francisco who solved crimes while riding around in a Rolls-Royce, pouring champagne for babes in satins and furs. [↩]
- “You’re scarcely a subtle factotum,” an Eloise-ish little girl tells Bos at one point, the first and last time that the voice of Kay Thompson is heard among the Angels. [↩]
- Anyone tuning in to the pilot expecting to see Farrah shouting “Made it, pa! Top of the world!” while standing on an exploding fuel tank will, of course, be profoundly disappointed. [↩]
- Goff and Roberts, who snagged 12.5 percent of the show just for writing the pilot, claimed that Spelling rejected their brand of sophistication and style for tits n’ ass. Well, maybe some of us common folks here in the flyover states like tits n’ ass, okay, Messieurs Big Shots! [↩]
- Marie is back, of course, smack dab on the September cover of Vogue. [↩]
- The Duke de Saint-Simon was bitching about three-foot hairdos for babes back in the 1670s. A hundred years later, they were still going strong. Because dames never change. [↩]
- The fact that anyone could see Farrah jiggle, back in those bad old natural breast days, indicates how closely we used to stare at our 19-inch sets. [↩]
- Smith was, in fact, the ultimate company chick, loudly defending each and every excess. Responding to the heat that followed “Angels in Chains,” she said “We liked that show! Being chained together and running around — it was fun!” In the third season, an increasingly irritable (and, no doubt, irritating) Kate Jackson claimed to be infuriated by “Marathon Angels,” an episode involving an all-chick marathon that was widely derided as the series’ ultimate jiggle-fest. As usual, Jackie didn’t have a problem: “It was good to get out and run!” [↩]
- Charlie’s smutty double-entendres, usually accompanied by the camera backing up to reveal a curvaceous babe in a French maid’s outfit (or something less subtle), lasted quite a while longer, until Forsythe insisted that they be dropped. Spelling loved them, but no one else did. [↩]
- In fact, the massive exfusion of hair spray generated by the show led to the infamous “Angel hole” in the ozone layer directly about LA, which has yet to close. [↩]
- Martin appeared in the two-part opener of the third season, “Angels in Vegas,” looking awkward and uncomfortable. Thirty-plus years of hard partying leads to slurred speech and poor physical coordination. Who knew? [↩]
- Later, Zora subjects poor Cheryl to the little-known yet agonizing “death by herbal wrap.” Fortunately, Jaclyn and Kate put a stop to things before the fifth, final, and fatal wrap is applied. [↩]
- Lasko was a remarkable jack of all trades for the Angels, serving as producer and writer for many of the episodes. For “Angels in Vegas,” he also wrote a song (“One for the Dealer”), sang it, and appeared as an actor! Such a talent! (Lasko also produced and wrote the episode, and, as he tells it, saved it by bringing an aging Dino back from the edge of an anxiety attack — “Those girls make me look like I’m a hundred years old!” [↩]
- The production values, usually one of the show’s weakest points, are remarkably good, with lots of excellently photographed Alpine action. I don’t ski myself (I can fall down easily enough walking to the library), but I’m a sucker for it on the big screen. [↩]
- Other intriguing third-season episodes include “Disco Angels,” with surprisingly good dancing, and “Rosemary, For Remembrance,” which features Cheryl in a flashback role as the wife of a big-time bootlegger in the Roaring Twenties. The script, involving a forty-year-old murder, is much tighter than usual, and the costumes and sets are excellent. In the climactic scene, Chris wears a long-missing diamond necklace to flush out the killer. The necklace was buried in a fancy silver jewel box, which Chris puts in her purse for safekeeping. When the bad guy cuts up rough, Chris smashes him with her purse and the dude drops. “What did you hit him with?” gasps her escort. “I hit him with the past,” she says. [↩]
- The flick, based on the best-selling book by Avery Corman, was the first wave of anti-feminist kitsch, portraying Joanna Kramer as a shallow, selfish bitch more interested in “self-realization” than her adorable son. [↩]
- It’s hard to believe that Shelley was much worse than Smith, who, according to Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales, “seems incapable of registering any emotion stronger than mild annoyance.” (Shales wasn’t always so mean. He said that Valerie Bertinelli “seems incapable of giving a bad performance.” I would have said that she seems incapable of giving a performance, period.) [↩]
- In the Doonesbury strips of the time, ace Time-Life reporter Rick Redfern is detailed to a special “Farrah-24/7″ task force, which has frequent meetings about her hyphen. [↩]
- Michael Ontkean and Harry Hamlin starred as the happy couple. Naturally, this 1982 “shocker” did not shock anyone. [↩]
- Jackie’s nothing but class website features Bach on the soundtrack (along with ads for Jackie’s Kmart fashions). [↩]
- Cheryl, too smart to trust to the kindness of strangers, runs her own website. [↩]
- Poor Pauline, who always wanted to be tall and athletic (see her over-the-top review of the Hepburn/Tracy classic Pat and Mike), simply went ga-ga for Sheena. [↩]
- Bernie Mac did not work as Bosley in Full Throttle, but the shots of Demi Moore and Cameron in dueling bikinis were worth any amount of longueurs. And the strip club scene in the same pic was fantastic. In fact, the main drawback to both pics was Drew Barrymore’s fat ass. Why couldn’t she have lost the twenty pounds before she made CA1 and CA2? Still, when I saw Drew hawking Full Throttle on TV she looked fantastic, her magnificent breasts cantilevered to the exploding point in the mother of all pushup bras. Why wasn’t that in the picture? [↩]