Charlie's 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.
Deemed sexploitation 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.
Charlie's 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).
Fawcett (then 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."
Sabrina 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)................ John Forsythe
Leonard Goldberg, Aaron Spelling, Rich Husky, David Levinson, Barney Rosenzweig, Ronald Austin, James David Buchanan, Edward J. Lasko, Robert Janes, Elaine Rich
September 1976-August 1977 Wednesday 10:00-11:00
August 1977-October 1980 Wednesday 9:00-10:00
November 1980-January 1981 Sunday 8:00-9:00
January 1981-February 1981 Saturday 8:00-9:00
June 1981-August 1981 Wednesday 8:00-9:00
D'Acci, Julie. Defining Women: Television and the Case of Cagney & Lacey. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.
Fiske, John. Television Culture. New York: Routledge, 1987.
Meehan, Diana. Ladies of the Evening: Women Characters of Prime-Time Television. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1983.