Angels, the critically panned female detective series that heralded
the age of "jiggle TV," aired on ABC from 1976-81. The show, which
featured three shapely, often scantily clad women solving crimes
undercover for a boss they knew only as a Godly voice from a phone
speaker, was an immediate sensation, landing the number five spot
in the Nielsen ratings during the 1976-77 TV season. (This premiere-season
record would remain unbroken until 1994-95, when NBC's new medical
drama ER finished number two for the year.) In its second year,
following the departure of its most popular star, Charlie's Angels
tied for number four with, ironically, the critically acclaimed
60 Minutes and All in the Family. But by its third
season, Charlie's Angels' slipped out of the top ten. And
in 1980-81, the show's novelty had worn as thin as the Angels' slinky
outfits, and Charlie's Angels, placing 59 out of 65 shows, was cancelled
after 115 episodes.
by its detractors, Charlie's Angels was the brainchild of
producer Aaron Spelling, who in the early 1970s had found success
in the TV detective genre with The Mod Squad and The Rookies,
hip series shooting for young-adult audiences. With Charlie's
Angels, Spelling spun a new formula that would attract desirable
demographics among young men and women: He combined detective drama
with the glamorous fantasy that would become his staple in the 1980s
with Dynasty and the 1990s with Beverly Hills, 90210 and
Melrose Place. Not only were his Angels beautiful and sexy,
they were smart and powerful heroines who used provocative attraction
(and feminine, often feigned, vulnerability) to lure and capture
unsuspecting male criminals. Though Charlie's Angels was
among TV's first dramas to instill female characters with typically
male "powers" via a dominant subject position, the show's critics,
inluding infuriated feminists, countered that Charlie's Angels
was little more than a patriarchal production that sexually
objectified its characters.
Angels' premise placed its feminine heroes in a male-dominated
work place and a woman-as-victim society. The Angels--once "three
little girls who went to the police academy"--worked under the auspices
of a patriarchal, narrative voice they called Charlie (the never-seen
John Forsythe), who ran from remote locations the Charles Townsend
Detective Agency in Los Angeles. Bosley, Charlie's asexual (and
thus unthreatening) representative (played by David Doyle), helped
direct the Angels meet Charlie's desired ends. Working undercover
in women's prison camps, as showgirls, as prostitutes, and in other
sexually suggestive locales and professions, the Angels inevitably
found themselves in jeopardy each week, victimized either by evil
men or unattractive (which in Spelling's lexicon meant "bad") women
who underestimated the Angels' smarts and strengths as beautiful,
seemingly frail decoys.
The three original
Angels included two decoys--brunette Kelly Garret (played by Jaclyn
Smith, the only Angel to remain through the series' entire run)
and blonde Jill Munroe (played by Farrah Fawcett, whose fluffy,
feathered hairstyle became a nationwide 1970s fad and whose sexy
posters became bestsellers). By contrast, the third, less glamorous
Angel, Sabrina Duncan (played by Kate Jackson, who also starred
in Spelling's The Rookies), became known as "the smart one."
Sabrina's impish qualities--independence, athleticism, adventurism
and asexuality--often kept her working behind the scenes with Bosley,
helping to rescue other Angels, and consequently often kept her
out of the bikinis, braless t-shirts and tight dresses with plunging
necklines that her co-workers opted to wear. Sabrina, Jill and Kelly
(a martial arts expert) all participated in the show's choreographed
violence, which included karate chops, kicks to the groin and other
sanitized brutality (guns seldom were fired).
Farrah Fawcett-Majors during her brief marriage to Six Million
Dollar Man star Lee Majors) broke her contract and left the
series after one season to become a movie star. She was replaced
by blonde actress Cheryl Ladd, who played Jill's younger sister,
Kris, also a decoy character. (As part of her exit agreement, Fawcett
was forced to make guest appearances through the show's fourth season.)
After two seasons and struggles to insert more meaningful characterizations
into the show, Kate Jackson also retired her wings. She was replaced
in 1979 by blonde actress Shelly Hack, who in 1980 was replaced
by brunette actress Tanya Roberts for the show's final season. Throughout
these cast changes, the formula remained consistent, save the loss
of the impish Sabrina.
All six Angels,
especially Fawcett, Smith, Jackson and Ladd, became media icons
whose faces--and heavenly bodies--were plastered on magazine covers,
posters, lunch boxes and loads of other toys and related merchandise.
Charlie's Angels was undoubtedly a fantasy whose trappings
appealed to males and females, young and old. Whether the show ultimately
helped or hurt female portrayals in TV drama remains debatable.
But as pure camp, the show, highlighted by episodes with titles
like "Angels in Chains," remains a cult classic. As the omniscient
Charlie would say, "Good work, Angels."
Duncan (1976-79)...................... Kate Jackson Jill
Munroe (l976-77).................. Farrah Fawcett-Majors Kelly
Garrett........................................... Jaclyn Smith
Kris Munroe (1977-81)............................... Cheryl
Ladd Tiffany Welles (1979-80)......................... Shelley
Hack Julie Rogers (1980-81).......................... Tanya
Roberts John Bosley.............................................
David Doyle Charlie Townsend (voice only)................
Goldberg, Aaron Spelling, Rich Husky, David Levinson, Barney Rosenzweig,
Ronald Austin, James David Buchanan, Edward J. Lasko, Robert Janes,
September 1976-August 1977. Wednesday 10:00-11:00 August 1977-October
1980....... Wednesday 9:00-10:00 November 1980-January 198l............
Sunday 8:00-9:00 January 1981-February 1981........... Saturday
8:00-9:00 June 1981-August 1981.............. Wednesday 8:00-9:00
Julie. Defining Women: Television and the Case of Cagney & Lacey.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press,
John. Television Culture. New York: Routledge, 1987.
Diana. Ladies of the Evening: Women Characters of Prime-Time
Television. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1983.
and Television; Forsythe,
John ; Detective