On “Charlie’s Angels” and The Dubious Breakthrough of Jiggle TV

Today is the birthday of the late Farrah Fawcett (1947-2009). When the world first knew her of course, she was billed as Farrah Fawcett-Majors, and she was show business royalty, for she was married to Lee Majors, The Six Million Dollar Man and not incidentally the sexiest woman in the world, as established by being the subject of the best selling poster in history:

My friend had this poster and I, like every other heterosexual male in the country, could not refrain from staring at it. I was 11 at the time. Such things were already a matter of obsession. What was it about this poster in particular and Farrah (ever so briefly) in general? I’ve always been fascinated by the fragile alchemy of it. During this one brief window, she somehow seemed the summit of female perfection. But then it was almost immediately gone. When I saw her in later roles, whatever recipe had resulted in this magical illusion was imbalanced. The Goddess had vanished. Her toothy smile and delicate bone structure had been key, but it’s not like she ever lost those; the volatile, missing ingredient seems to have been this particular cut of feathered back 70s hair, and whatever make-up was employed at this early stage in her career.

I’m sure there will be a hue and cry if I say she lacked personality or talent. She did indeed win several awards for various performances, so she will have her defenders. But even as a tween I could perceive that part of the whole joke, the whole point of Charlie’s Angels (1976-1981) was its open cynicism. The genius of it was that it was a sanitized, television version of exploitation films. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, there had been tons of low budget B movies with sexy lady cops and private eyes, some of them for the blaxploitation market, some of them verging on soft-core porn. The Doll Squad (1973) may be the best example. Producer Aaron Spelling (having previously been responsible for Honey West) knew how to make this kind of thing work for television. Police Woman had pointed the way. The premise in the new show is that three hot chicks had attended the police academy but were only given meter maid work to do. So they were hired by the never seen “Charlie” (voiced by John Forsythe) to be a trio of comely private detectives.

Kate Jackson, already a star of Spelling’s The Rookies, was the first to be hired, and yet she was always the one that sort of spoiled the concept. Jackson was pretty but not stunning. Adorable would be more the word. She had personality and she was funny. In other words, she was actually good, which was off-brand. The other two, Farrah Fawcett-Majors and Jaclyn Smith were what it was all about. They were like these models with gorgeous faces, bodies and manes of hair, with apparently zero personality or talent, just wearing outfits and hitting their marks like show ponies. (It is telling that the original concept was that one would be blonde, one brunette, and one a red head — just like Petticoat Junction. But somehow Jaclyn Smith “passed the audition” — she was so “good” that she caused the producers to abandon their original color scheme. This is a woman who could not give an interesting line reading to save her life!) And so these three women (Kelly, Sabrina, and Jill!) would go on their preposterous “assignments”, i.e. crimes to solve, which were essentially excuses for them to be seen in swim suits, and drive in sports cars, and dance in discos. David Doyle as Bosley, their handler, seemed almost like a circus animal trainer. “Girls, today I want you to put on your best outfits and stand near a palm tree!”

Critics derided this newly created genre as “Jiggle TV”. People laughed at it, scorned it, but oh how they watched it. The monster success emboldened Spelling to try variations. For example there was Toni’s Boys, the gender reversed version, with Barbara Stanwyck as the “Charlie” figure, and three young men as the bubble headed pseudo-sleuths. And let us not forget The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, which also pushed the envelope of exploitation, both being shows where every week random strangers had excuses to hook up.

Charlie’s Angels itself proved to have a short shelf life. It was dependent on its casting, such as it was. The popular stars kept dropping out. Farrah left after one season, to be replaced by Cheryl Ladd as her character’s younger sister (yeah, that always happens). Then the talented, smarter one Kate Jackson dropped out, replaced first by Shelley Hack, who was then in turn replaced by Tanya Roberts. By that time, most of the audience had already moved on. The show ceased production in 1981. In 1982, Cagney and Lacey debuted, a show that took the idea of female cops somewhat more seriously. In possibly not unrelated news, in 1979 the clock ran out on the Equal Rights Amendment.