It’s been 40 years since Charlie’s Angels first premiered on ABC, catapulting the once struggling network to the number one spot and three relatively unknown actors to supernova stardom. Farrah Fawcett, Jaclyn Smith, and Kate Jackson assumed the roles of Jill Munroe, Kelly Garrett, and Sabrina Duncan, respectively, after a contentious battle with wary execs who weren’t convinced that women could carry a detective show on their own. That myopic viewpoint, as most execs are wont to have, was, of course, laid to rest when Charlie’s Angels became an instant smash with audiences. But what is a success story without haters nipping at its heels? By and large, Charlie’s Angels was a flop with critics who ripped the show apart for its less-than-stellar thespian qualities, its paper-thin plots, and, more to the point, its paper-thin wardrobe.
The term “jiggle TV” or “T&A TV” came into true prominence following the premiere of Charlie’s Angels in 1976 with Fawcett, Smith, and Jackson cracking cases in bikinis and busting baddies braless. Fawcett famously once said, “When the show was number three, I figured it was our acting. When it got to be number one, I decided it could only be because none of us wears a bra.”
Executive producers Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg never intended Charlie’s Angels to be like the hard-hitting cop dramas dominating television at the time. Their show put glamour, fashion, and, yes, jiggling, before substance. The Angels were doing what the boys were doing, but they had to look good doing it. And herein lies the feminist rub that’s dogged the show lo these 40 years: Why couldn’t they solve mysteries in more sensible outfits?
Jiggle TV bounced along toward latter decades with shows like The Dukes of Hazzard and Baywatch, but it somewhat faded out as women started leaning in across Hollywood, commanding more writer, producer, director, and showrunner credits, which, in part, led to more diverse and dimensional female characters. Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu, and Drew Barrymore put on the halos for a self-aware and tongue-in-cheek 2000 film that was a surprise box office hit, but the in-jokiness waned by the 2003 sequel. ABC tried rebooting the TV series in 2011–and it was an abject failure. Actor/director Elizabeth Banks was recently tapped to helm a resurrection of the film franchise, but given the graveyard of angelic projects, has our perception of jiggle TV and film evolved to the point where Charlie’s Angels could exist–in its true essence–in today’s feminist woke state?
Charlie’s Angels never pretended to be anything more than what it was: fantasy television. Even the first line of the opening credits frames it as such with the voice of Charlie (John Forsythe) proclaiming, “Once upon a time, there were three little girls who went to the police academy . . .” As airy as Spelling and Goldberg kept their show, there was a slip of subversiveness beneath the surface whether they meant for it to be there or not.
“Certainly Charlie’s Angels was, no pun intended, the poster child for television’s swerve toward much sexier images of women,” says TV historian Tim Brooks. “Television had been fairly demure before that. It may sound strange, but there was a bit of a flap in the early ‘50s when some actresses had plunging necklines. But mostly it was women in the kitchen on Father Knows Best with their pearls and dresses.”
The concept of “sex sells” is practically in every marketer’s handbook, but Charlie’s Angels wasn’t necessarily intended to exploit women–it was doing what TV has done historically, which is reflect the current times.
“The women’s movement, which took root in the ‘60s but really gained momentum in the ‘70s and ‘80s and on through the ‘90s, changed perceptions where it was okay for women to be sexy,” Brooks says. “They were considered empowered if they wanted to do that. Women wanted some role models that had less of a subservient role to them as well.”
Charlie’s Angels helped to make owning your sexuality and being tough non-mutually exclusive for women in television, yet some will understandably counter that the Angels never actually owned their sexuality to begin with: On-camera, they did the bidding of a disembodied man–behind the camera, the whole show was concocted and largely written by men.
“I did watch it when it was originally on–it was both sexist and empowering at the same time,” says Terry Lawler, executive director of New York Women in Film & Television. “They’re doing things that you’d expect men to do in normal cop shows, but they’re doing them in these impossible outfits and they have Charlie, like they’re not smart enough as detectives to do it on their own.”
The latter part of this love/hate dichotomy comes with the advantage of seeing how far roles for women have come since Charlie’s Angels. Back then, empowerment had to be rolled up in some kind of exploitation to get a female-led show to sell. Now, a show’s success is far less contingent upon fulfilling a quota of visible skin. Shows like The Good Wife, Jane the Virgin, Scandal, Orange Is the New Black, and How to Get Away with Murder are universally praised for having strong, more realistic female leads.
It’s all a huge step in the right direction, but for a show like Charlie’s Angels, realism was never the goal. It was constructed on the premise of escapism, what Christine Bragan, vice president of corporate marketing and communications for AMC, considers to be the equivalent of reality TV now.
“You had three women who were smart and helped right injustices but at the same time, they were being exploited in the situations and storylines they found themselves in. They would go [undercover] into a women’s prison, but they’re in tight prison uniforms and not the boxy orange jumpsuits,” says Bragan, who is also a NYWIFT board member. “It was a sign of the times. I think a lot of women recognized that that’s not how things were, but just like reality TV and sensationalized television became popular more recently, that’s what attracted audiences back then.”
Reality TV has its own place now, so what are audiences outside the Real Housewives universe attracted to today when it comes to shows led by women?
“The woman has to be shown in her own life,” says Marla Provencio, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of ABC Entertainment. “I’m very fortunate that I’m in a world right now where the storytellers are fabulous. People like Shonda Rhimes have such great way of representing women, giving them the eloquence of speaking in a way that makes you as a woman proud to be who you are. Being vulnerable, being emotional, being passionate, being angry, being mad–you can be all of that. I think before it was a little bit more controlling of women. Women played a certain part, but the storytelling has evolved to put them in a more realistic place.”
Applying those multifaceted characteristics to Charlie’s Angels may have been asking too much of a franchise that was never meant to have much dimension to begin with. ABC’s 2011 re-think had a distinctly sleeker and more dramatic tone, and it lasted all of four episodes. Onscreen angel Barrymore was even an executive producer on the TV attempt, yet it failed to recapture even a little of the goofy charm of the 2000 movie. Granted, much in the way of expectations for female characters evolved in the 11 years between the two attempts. And one could argue that the acting and writing in the 2011 reboot just wasn’t any good–but was it any better in 1976? What the original had that the reboot ultimately lacked was freshness. Paul Lee, then president of ABC Entertainment, summed it up as much on a Television Critics Association press tour in 2012 by saying, “I don’t think we breathed life into that franchise, but I think it was a strong attempt.”
Perhaps the TV reboot’s biggest failure was its inability to take an accurate temperature of the time, something any good TV show, particularly one set in modernity, should do.
“Every season it really depends on what the environment is or what the world at that point in time is looking for, and maybe the timing wasn’t right,” says Provencio who was at ABC during the reboot. “I think at that point in time the audience may have been looking for something else. I don’t think it necessarily had to do with the women–there were other options people were leaning more toward.”
The massive success of Charlie’s Angels in 1976 was contingent upon how fresh it was at the time and how it reflected the shifting roles of women in society. Would the show be remembered as strongly if the Angels dressed more conservatively? Most likely not. That’s not to suggest a show led by women can only be memorable if they’re scantily clad–it’s just that that specific aspect is so entwined in the spirit of the show that you can’t accept one without the other. Charlie’s Angels is Charlie’s Angels because of the jiggle. To try and make it anything more would kill the fantasy–to try and make it now as it was then would seem like a misogynistic step backward. The 2000 film remake was a commercial success because, in addition to the winking tone, it added a new element of action with the use of “wire fu” (stunts using wires + kung fu) made popular by films like The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; and it was true to the essence of the show in its almost cartoon-like nature and willingness to exploit its three leads’ sex appeal. However, it’s safe to assume Diaz twerking in tighty whities or Liu’s dominatrix subterfuge or Barrymore suggestively licking a steering wheel would be much harder to pass off onto audiences today.
And that’s perfectly fine–Charlie’s Angels wasn’t really built for the long haul. The show lasted for five seasons, and by that time the formula had gone well past its expiration date.
“It was a novelty as were the shows around it when it premiered in the ‘70s, but television is a medium of constant change,” says Brooks. “Like most shows after awhile it was superseded by other shows that were newer and fresher–the soap operas of the ’80s for example–and that made [Charlie’s Angels] seem old hat.”
It will be interesting to see where Elizabeth Banks takes her reboot: Will she pull the Angels into R-rated territory? Will it be a throwback set in the ‘70s? Will Charlie finally be a woman? The only thing that can be said with near certainty is that there will be no jiggly for jiggle’s sake. Given the trajectory of feminism, Charlie’s Angels will be an increasingly difficult franchise to revive–but given the trajectory of Hollywood, studios will never stop defibrillating a franchise that should probably be left to its resting place of nostalgia.