Sunday, December 24, 2006

TV: Looking forward . . . by looking backward?

Once upon a time, there were . . .

Wait! Let's start over.

Once upon a time there was a proselytizing net-lette. Bringing in the sheeves, if not the dough. But now high ambitions and 'moral character' matter less than just staying solvent. Now it's called "I."

It's the "I TV Network." "I." Formely Pax TV. We were honestly unaware of it until Ty kept telling us it was repeatedly coming up in e-mails.

In a world where the choices are Pax TV or I, we'd argue the newer version is the less damaging. That's largely due to the fact that, unlike Pax TV, there are no sappy, moralizing dramas created for the network currently. Not only that, they aren't currently planning to make any.

Like Pax TV, I exists to sell you religion -- a peculiar strain -- but it's also got to make money -- something Pax forgot.

So during the week, Monday through Friday, they offer up an hour of Green Acres repeats (some Fridays, they air The Partridge Family and The Monkees in this hour), an hour of Growing Pains repeats (Welcome Back Kotter on Fridays), an hour of Mama's Family repeats, an hour of Diagnosis Murder repeats and, here's the shocker, an hour of Charlie's Angels repeats.

Sometimes you get a movie tossed in. Most of the time, the other hours are filled with infomercials and 'inspirational' programming. The hope is that . . . Well, let's let the netlette tell it as they explain why they went from Pax to I:

The new network name is a reflection of our expanded program offerings and renewed focus on delivering timeless, diverse entertainment to viewers of all ages. Throughout the broadcast day, the network delivers a mix of original series, classic TV favorites, movies, specials and sports the whole family can enjoy.

"Throughout the broadcast day" really just means primetime. Otherwise, you're more likely to stumble across end of timerss Dwight Nelson and Doug Batchelor, et al. I, like Pax before it, and Jehovah Witnesses most weekends, just wants to get inside your homes. So much so, that they're willing to offer up the program for which "jiggle TV" was coined, Charlie's Angels.

Once upon a time, there were three little girls . . .

And the I ads agree as they show Farrah Fawcett, Cheryl Ladd and Tanya Roberts. They're epecially fond of the cleavage shot where Julie (Roberts) is on top of a speeding car. Shots of all three are chosen for the jiggle factor.

Is that a White Flag waving in the cultural wars or just another sign of hypocrisy?

As you ponder that, ponder Charlie's Angels. The ABC powerhouse ran five seasons and, like too many shows today, there are seasons you're better off skipping.

The first season, the one that took the successful TV movie and made it into a phenomenon remains the best. Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith play Sabrina, Jill and Kelly -- former police officers who became private detectives and work for an unseen Charlie. The humor (or, some would argue, what passes for it) is a bit more adult so are the situations. That includes not just the infamous "Angels in Chains" episode but also adult characters -- Sabrina's divorced (Bill Duncan, played by Michael Bell, appears twice in season one) -- and the adult settings (massage parlor, adult films).

Jackson, Fawcett and Smith were news. Three women headlining an hour drama was news in the fall of 1976. Not all that much has changed all these years later.

In 1976, along with the jiggle factor, the other primary criticism was that the three detectives weren't independent since they 'took orders' from Charlie, an unseen male. Took orders? Charlie's heard at the beginning and the end of most episodes (an exception being season four's "Toni's Boys"). At the beginning, he discusses the case, at the end, he discusses the case. For the rest of the hour, the Angels, with comic foil Bosley (David Doyle, present for all five seasons), are acting on their own. To get how revolutionary that was -- and still is -- for TV compare and contrast it with the likes of Alias where a woman is surrounded by men -- a Queen Bee idea that was tired long before Police Woman went off the air. Jill, Sabrina and Kelly worked together.

We aren't saying the first season (or, indeed, the concept) wasn't worthy of scrutiny or criticism, but we are saying that, considering all that's come since, Charlie's Angels is far from the worst offender. And on that first season, you had three adult women playing three adult women. All three were near thirty (Fawcett and Smith were born in 1947; Jackson in 1948) when the series began airing in the fall of 1976, all were more athletic looking than emaciated looking, and, though they'd laugh at each other's jokes, they weren't bumbling airheads.

The first season is the strongest. After that, Farrah Fawcett leaves the show and ABC decides to go "young." That meant moving the show to an earlier time slot (and the hours mattered in those days -- the later you aired, the more adult you could be) and it meant adding Cheryl Ladd to the cast.

Ladd playing Kris, younger sister to Jill, brought the smut factor with her. Kris would voice the lines about where to hide a gun in a bikini, Kris would go to a nude beach (in her series debut) and Kris would always be 'pretty.' Farrah Fawcett was (is) amazing beautiful. That didn't prevent Jill from going undercover as an athelete. With Kris the series went to Candyland. Seasons two and three contain strong work by Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith. Jackson was given many more situations to shape in the first season but her deft touch is still present in seasons two and three. (She's the only actress nominated for an Emmy -- twice in fact -- for the series.) Moving to an earlier time slot meant losing a lot of Kelly's wisecracks and it's to Smith's credit that you don't immediately grasp how radically her character has changed. But you do grasp that it's kiddie time as Ladd's every moment, for two years, is spent pleading "Like me." (Most noteable in the phoney laugh Ladd utilizes throughout both seasons which tends to end as a question mark. Even in laughter,'lil Kris begs permission.)

Season four is generally considered the worst (though it did better in the ratings than the fifth and final year). Kate Jackson leaves the show and any Shelley Hack shows up as Tiffany. Much is made of Hack as the problem for season four but the real problem lies with Ladd who suddenly drops Kris' 'like me' young girl attitude and has nothing to replace it with (though she appears to be chafing to fill Sabrina's role as team leader). Had Ladd kept the persona, Hack might have fit in better. Though inferior to season one, season four's actually one of the stronger ones overall. Before you scoff, do you remember the episode where an Angel's strung out on smack? That's season four and Jaclyn Smith pulls it off. By the final two-parter (an ambitious, soapy storyline for the show), Kelly and Kris are at odds and, though it doesn't feel like Charlie's Angels, it showed more daring than anything the writers had tried in years. Naturally, all of that will be forgotten before the opening of the fifth season.

Season five is when Charlie's Angels turns itself into a joke. Before, all three lead characters were trained detectives (with police experience), in season five, Julie Rogers is added -- apparently for cup size -- to the team. On Sunday nights or Saturday nights, audiences didn't give a damn about the psudeo-empowerment of "Any idiot can be an Angel."

The first season spirit is what Drew Barrymore brought to the two films Charlie's Angels and Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. Three adult women work together and enjoy working together.

We think, if nothing else, I can remind (or show for the first time) TV audiences of that concept. It was revolutionary. There's a TV critic still at his same post (you knew it was a 'he,' didn't you?) who trashed Charlie's Angels from the start -- the TV movie that preceeded the film -- and possibly a feminist critique in the future could focus on the critical reaction to the show? Male critics really didn't like the show. Give 'em a Honey West or Emma Peel (or later a Sydney) surrounded by men and that they could enjoy -- but three women seemed to frighten them. So you got criticism revolving around the hairstyles of the leads and that sort of thing.

The TV landscape since Charlie's Angels hasn't shown much improvement. You've got your all male cast action shows and you're all male plus token woman action shows but, with the exception of Charmed, you really haven't had anything else. (Buffy fans -- everyone was support to Sarah Michelle Geller -- as the title signaled, it was a one-woman show.) Watching Charlie's Angels on I may make you appreciate even more what Rose McGowan did as Paige. Like Ladd, McGowan came into an existing show replacing an audience favorite. Like Ladd, McGown came on as the younger sister. Like Ladd, she utilized humor. Unlike Ladd, her first two seasons do not play like one long prat fall.

The I lineup is interesting because it offers examples for today. Watching Mama's Family will demonstrate that there is no life for King of Queens in the future -- both shows feature a lot of yelling, a lot of bad attempts at humor and a cast that never takes off. Growing Pains will explain to you why so many sitcoms should die (boring performers, boring writers). Green Acres will demonstrate that My Name Is Earl is hardly breakthrough TV.

And Charlie's Angels? Already it's too much for I -- which was originally airing it after Mama's Family but had to move it to the last hour of primetime due to concerns over the 'racy nature.'

It's sad statement for our society that thirty years later, Charlie's Angels can still cause a panic.

All those years ago, ABC's big concerns was with the team in the field -- who would rescue the Angels? The suits weren't reassured by the response that the Angels would rescue themselves.

Not a lot's changed in thirty years.
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