When I was 6 years old, I regularly wore a T-shirt featuring a picture of a woman with visibly erect nipples. This wasn’t considered strange—not in 1976, when Farrah Fawcett-Majors was one of the most popular actresses and models in the United States, and when the image of her grinning in a thin swimsuit beamed away on T-shirts and wall-sized posters everywhere. The famous Farrah image arrived around the same time that she began starring in Charlie’s Angels, a frothy ABC undercover detective series that was central to the network’s rebranding in the ’70s as the home of fun, brainless TV that was heavy on the sex appeal. Though Farrah Fawcett-Majors only lasted one full season on the show—choosing to pursue other showbiz offers while she was the hottest name in Hollywood—her zoom to stardom, coupled with the phenomenal early success of Charlie’s Angels, changed television for a time, pushing network executives to give “quality” a rest for a while and pursue escapism laced with jiggle.
But when my copy of the new 27-disc Charlie’s Angels: The Complete Series DVD set arrived last week, I didn’t crack it open looking to chart the rise and fall of TV’s early-’70s golden age. Pendulums are made to swing, and besides, even during the time when TV dumbed down, there were still smart shows on the air. (And even some of the “dumb” shows have redeeming qualities.) What’s more fascinating about Charlie’s Angels is how the show drew on trends in popular culture to transmit a message about femininity that was mixed, at best. Its heroines are strong women, capable of going undercover as athletes, socialites, or cunning businessfolk; but they also spent a lot of time playing “bait” while undercover as the kind of winking sexpot types familiar to fans of Roger Corman’s ’70s drive-in fare. Really, a typical Charlie’s Angels episode wasn’t too far removed from a typical sexploitation film, minus the nudity—and the show pushed even that about as far as it could.
I skimmed through the set looking for one Charlie’s Angels undercover assignment that sums up the show, in all its silliness, ’70s-ness, and, most importantly, its way of sneaking as much sexiness as possible into a series that was ostensibly family-friendly. I narrowed it down to these six:
Roller derby queen (“Angels On Wheels,” 1976): When a skater gets killed in a suspicious mid-match accident, Jill (Farah Fawcett-Majors) takes roller-skating lessons and joins the derby. A prime example of Charlie’s Angels exploiting the trends of the day, “Angels On Wheels” combines a murder investigation with a popular sport while still finding a way to keep Jill braless and relatively exposed, even while skating in a sweatshirt. As her coach puts it, “You can’t skate… But in the right-sized uniform, I don’t think the audience will be watching your feet.”
Student nurses (“Terror On Ward One,” 1977): Sexploitation movies in the ’70s had a big obsession with nurses. Maybe this was a relic of some ’50s notion of the “career gal” as being amoral and sexually available; or maybe it was because nurses always seem more comfortable with the human body. Whatever the reason, sexy student nurses were as much of a staple as the ’70s drive-in circuit as cheerleaders and stewardesses. (More on the latter two in a moment.) In “Terror On Ward One,” a string of sexual assaults on nurses at a local hospital prompts Jill and Kelly (Jaclyn Smith) to don form-fitting starched white uniforms, to see which of the male staffers might be coaxed into rape.
Icecapaders (“Angels On Ice,” 1977): Another ’70s-specific episode—from the days when “ice” was America’s favorite kind of “capade”—“Angels On Ice” puts Kelly and new Angel Kris (Cheryl Ladd) undercover at an ice show, where they get to the root of a plot to assassinate some visiting Arab dignitaries. Kris is mostly stuck inside of a bulky clown outfit, while Kelly gets to wear tight skating duds and, in one scene, a belly-dancer costume. Meanwhile, the story plays off the tensions in the Middle East (on ice!).
Stewardesses (“Angel Flight,” 1977): Even more than nurses, stewardesses were the premier “sexy” profession in ’70s movies and TV shows, in part because that was the image that the airlines promoted, and in part because of the romantic notion of a single, anonymous world-traveling woman, free to follow her bliss. In “Angel Flight,” the Angels take up residence in a dorm for stewardess trainees—known as “the stew zoo”—in order to find out who’s been sending black roses and making obscene phone calls to an old friend of Sabrina (Kate Jackson). The premise allows for a thrilling mid-air action sequence—a nod to the popular Airport movies—and for lots of scenes of stews-in-training hanging around the rec room in bikinis.
Cheerleaders (“Pom Pom Angels,” 1978): In one of their stranger cases, the Angels try out for a pro-football cheerleading squad to find out what happened to two missing members—who, it turns out, were snatched by a religious cult, led by the team’s deranged public-relations man. As always, the plot is mainly an excuse to show Kelly and Kris slipping into and out of skimpy outfits, while the other cheerleaders get showered up behind frosted glass.
Porn star (“Catch A Falling Angel,” 1980): Approaching a line of “let’s give the people what they really want” that Charlie’s Angels neared more than once, “Catch A Falling Angel” sends the Angels (now including Shelley Hack as Tiffany) into Los Angeles’ red-light district, where the son of one of their boss’ chums has gone missing after seeing his childhood sweetheart in an X-rated movie. When conventional gumshoe-ing fails Kelly and Tiffany, Kris bites the bullet and volunteers her services to a big-time porno producer. The episode stops short of having Kris actually doff her clothes and step in front of a movie camera, but “Catch A Falling Angel” is otherwise relentlessly prurient, spending much of its time on the set with (discreetly obscured) half-naked people.
Over the course of five seasons, the Angels would take on more jobs inspired by contemporary popular culture (CB-jargon-spouting truckers! Hillbilly moonshiners! Disco instructors! Love Boat passengers!), as well as whatever sport was in season (Golf! Tennis! Skiing! A women’s football league!), or whatever would be most potentially alluring. (Vegas showgirl! Centerfold! Massage parlor owner! Prostitute!) Meanwhile, the show kept shifting to earlier time-slots, starting out in the last hour of prime time in its first season and ending its abbreviated fifth and final season in “family hour.” The ladies started wearing bras regularly in later years, diminishing the show’s more topographical qualities; and while the heroines tended to be more flirty with the never-seen Charlie in the early going, that element was also toned down by the end.
But what always remained was the show’s formula: the case that Charlie takes as a favor to a friend, the threatening-looking creeps that turn out to be innocent, the struggle to find a job for each Angel to do, and the sense that the writers were getting most of their ideas from the latest issue of People magazine. Also, as “Catch A Falling Angel” shows, Charlie’s Angels never lost that undercurrent of unseemliness—the feeling that something meant for grown-ups had slipped through the filter and couldn’t be pushed back through to where it belonged. From the fairy-tale opening narration (“Once upon a time there were three little girls who went to the police academy…”) to the goofy, of-the-moment plots, Charlie’s Angels was bright, appealing and deceptively adult, like a rum-spiked fruitcake.
That’s why the best undercover guise for these Angels isn’t anything as sensational as “beauty pageant contestant” or “race car driver.” Maybe the ideal Angel was the faceless, weapon-toting outline over the show’s opening and closing credits: not a flesh-and-blood person, but a shape to be shaded in with whatever the producers and viewers required.