Charlie’s Angels

This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Todd VanDerWerff and Erik Adams talk about Charlie’s Angels.

Charlie’s Angels debuts tonight on ABC at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Todd: There are three types of TV audiences. There are the obsessives, the people who watch everything and consume everything and tend toward the challenging stuff that pushes the limits of the medium. There are the escapists, who view the medium as a way to unwind after a long day at work, something that will give them a few chuckles or a few nice moments before it’s on to the next day. And there are the ironists, the flipside of the obsessives. They’re the people who watch stuff, but mostly because they secretly want it to be bad. They’re most happy when they’re watching a terrible show, one they can make fun of, and they most enjoy the process of tearing apart. If you want to classify everything by Internet sites—and who doesn’t?—then we write TV Club with the obsessives in mind, while most mainstream TV sites write for the escapists, the people who just want to know what happened as quickly as possible. The ironists? Their heyday came with the late, lamented Television Without Pity that was.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these groups. Indeed, you probably watch every show as a different member of one of these groups, slipping easily from an obsessive for Breaking Bad to an escapist for White Collar to an ironist for Toddlers & Tiaras. You might circle back again, or watch shows for both obsession and escapism, or both escapism and irony. (It’s hard to imagine watching a show for all three or for the polar ends of the chain.) And there’s nothing wrong with specifically making a show for obsessives or escapists.

But it’s damned hard to make a show for ironists. It’s hard to make a show for people who just want something to howl at, who just want something to make fun of with their friends. Once you set out to make something that’s so bad it’s good, you usually just end up with something dull. And that’s part of why the new Charlie’s Angels is so bad. It’s a toss-up whether this or Unforgettable is the worst new drama of the year (though, and you may find this hard to believe, there’s one other scripted show that’s somehow worse than these but better than H8R coming up this fall). Unlike Unforgettable, however, Charlie’s Angels actively seems to be trying to make a bad television show. There are elements here that could be escapist, but the execution is so terrible and the people behind it so typically adroit at this sort of stuff that much of this seems like a drastic miscalculation.

This is what you need to have a Charlie’s Angels series work: attractive women. That’s pretty much it. The original series mostly got out of the way of the women doing their thing. Was it deplorable? Yes. Was it awful television? Of course. But it knew exactly what it was trying to do—tell self-contained stories about hot women in various situations that would require them to dress hotly—and titillate the audience at home. But at the same time, you have to really commit to that idea, commit to the idea that on some level, all you’re trying to do is appeal to the most base level anybody who likes to ogle a pretty girl has. The actresses have to be okay with that. The writers have to get out of the way of the sexy parade. And everything about the show has to be about peddling escapism and sex at every turn.

The biggest mistake Charlie’s Angels makes is that it seems sort of embarrassed about what it actually is. Look: This is not the kind of show most TV critics would prefer to spend their time watching. But there are pretty women in this cast, and if ABC wants to appeal to some of our baser natures via Minka Kelly, well, it’s not like Minka Kelly is hard on the eyes. There was a big kerfuffle around the fact that the opening narration for the original pilot of this used the words “little girls” to describe the three women at the center of the story. Now, the pilot says “young women” in that spot, and this isn’t exactly a triumph that has vanquished sexism forever. The series was trying to get around accusations of sexism, most likely, but there’s essentially no way to do this story and not make it sexist. It’s a series designed to put attractive women in skimpy clothing and have them follow the orders of a man’s voice issuing from a box, like they’re ’60s secretaries in a sitcom. If you’re going to have a show that’s appallingly retrograde and anti-feminist, the least you could do about it is have the guts to just go whole hog.

Instead, Charlie’s Angels commits halfheartedly to the idea of being a remake of Charlie’s Angels. The actors all seem mildly embarrassed to be there. The writers keep tossing in cheeky dialogue that’s meant to be amusing but is, instead, delivered somewhat dryly and without wit. At all times, there’s an air of, “God, isn’t this terrible? But aren’t you having fun watching it?” Of course we aren’t! If you know you’re doing something bad, it takes all the fun out of it for us.

There’s another way to go with this, probably. You could make it a USA-style show, where everything’s a touch implausible and very silly. But that would require something like actual craftsmanship, and the big networks have forgotten how to make these kinds of shows. This means that the characters are distractingly underdeveloped. Kelly’s Eve is… a great car thief, and what she brings to the team is… knowing… about… cars and stuff. (That has to have been how developers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar pitched her to the network.) Rachael Taylor—who has a very bad American accent, it must be said—plays Abby, who’s a former Park Avenue heiress who’s now a cat burglar or something because that’s what you do when you fall from grace. (This is yet another show to use the Bernie Madoff scandal as a distracting plot point, because that’s the only way anyone in Hollywood was affected by the recession.) Finally, there’s Annie Ilonzeh as Kate, who was once a dirty cop. Now she’s an angel, and her primary job seems to be providing exposition. (Hey, every team needs one.) Also, Bosley’s not a fat guy anymore; he’s played by the attractive young actor Ramón Rodriguez. You know. For the ladies. (Also, he’s a “hacker,” which in Hollywood terms means, “the guy down the street who knows how to fix my computer and can probably break into NORAD.”) So the plotting and character work becomes haphazard because nobody really has much to do. The pilot’s supposed to be an arc about how Eve comes to be an angel, but it’s remarkably lazily done, particularly for Gough and Millar, who at least know how to do competent escapism.

Thus, the two double down on the show’s mythology. Now, Charlie’s Angels is roughly between the Smurfs and Jenga on the list of “things that need a mythology,” but the writers take a look at stuff the original series treated quite matter-of-factly—because it was stupid!—and try to determine just how things could get to be this stupid. Charlie now delivers his lines like he’s a network executive. (An early speech in which he consoles the angels on a bad turn and calls something their most “personal” mission yet, like he’s reading the episode’s TV Guide blurb over the phone.) The angels treat their job almost as if it were semi-mystical, constantly using the word “angel” like that’s something you could put on your resume. And the show tries to enhance the mystery of who Charlie really is and what he’s really up to, like there were going to be actual consequences or something.

But we all know there won’t be consequences. We all know exactly where this is going, and the show doesn’t have the decency to just be stupidly enjoyable smut. Instead, it tries too hard, winks at the audience too much, and just generally messes what should be something pretty easy to do up. Normally, this would be the part where a good critic would launch into a rant about how you shouldn’t support anti-feminist tripe, but since that goes with the territory and since there are perfectly good reasons to avoid this program other than that, best to conclude with something else. Here’s all you need to know: This is a show where the titular characters wander into a party, spraying appetizers with an instant laxative and trying to get pretty socialites to take giant shits. It’s a better description of the show than any critic could ever give you.

Erik: Since I haven’t seen H8R, Charlie’s Angels has been my de facto punching bag for the new fall season. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, I hate, hate, hate this pilot. The leads are woefully miscast. There’s no real “action” in the action sequences. In a move that’s insanely contemptuous to the dirtbags tuning in to get a glimpse of Lyla Garrity in sexy outfits (a group that deserves a great deal of contempt, to be sure), Kelly’s backstory includes her escape from the clutches of a child-trafficking ring. Make no mistake: Charlie’s Angels isn’t a fan of the people watching it—and, as NPR’s Linda Holmes points out, the people making Charlie’s Angels don’t really seem to be fans of Charlie’s Angels.

The original Charlie’s Angels (and its two big-screen spinoffs) were trashy, yes, but they were also fun. By removing any trace of camp—my rage at the pilot must’ve blinded me to the winking Todd referenced—the show is just a dull procedural with four attractive leads and some clumsily executed editing tricks. (AND THE VOICE OF VICTOR GARBER!) And there are enough of those in primetime as is.

Unfortunately, the dovetailing interests of escapist viewers and ironists made Charlie’s Angels one of the “most anticipated” new series of the season. If TiVo’s numbers are accurate, a lot of people will tune in to ABC tonight to watch an unenthusiastic revision of what was hardly TV’s proudest product to begin with. The ironists will get a hearty belly laugh out of the incident that gets the ball rolling on Kelly’s recruitment—but CBS and NBC will be offering more solid, more consistent laughs at the same time. The escapists will get to see pretty people in pretty locales getting in pretty danger—but both of The CW’s Thursday-night dramas offer that, with the added enticement that those pretty people are also vampires and witches! No matter which of the three television-watching camps you identify with, there’s a better use of your time somewhere else on the air tonight. Sorry, Charlie’s.

Todd’s grade: D-
Erik’s grade: F