Sunday, December 09, 2012
The Bionic Woman Season One
Kristy McNichol (above), Andy Griffith, Tippi Hedren, Donald O'Connor, Barbara Rush and Alejandro Rey are only some of the guest stars in season one. Of?
The Bionic Woman. The Six Million Dollar Man was a popular ABC TV series and it was felt that Steve Austin (Lee Majors) needed a female love interest for a number of reasons. But not a regular love interest, just a quick on and off so Steve can remain unattached.
Lindsay Wagner, under contract to Universal, ended up cast as Jaime Sommers, a tennis star who gets engaged to Steve. The childhood sweethearts decide to sky dive because if they don't there's not enough story for two episodes ["The Bionic Woman (Part 1)" and "The Bionic Woman (Part 2)"].
So they go sky diving and, as you probably expected, Jamie's shoot fails to open. Her legs and her right arm are destroyed. Her ear is punctured. Steve begs Oscar (Richard Anderson) to do what they did for Steve when his crash: Rebuild with bionic parts.
Jaime's given a bionic arm, a bionic ear and two bionic legs. But there's something wrong. She hears this screeching noise and is in blind pain. Her body is rejecting the bionics. After everything done to save Jaime, Steve loses her all over again as Jaime dies.
Or does she . . .
Audience response was too great to allow Jaime to be a two episode character. So they brought her back for another two-parter. Steve thinks he sees Jaime. He did. She's still alive. Don't try to follow the plot too closely, it never makes much sense. But she was put in suspended animation -- years before Fringe did the same by putting Olivia, Peter, Walter and Astrid in amber -- and then operated on. She's alive, she's bionic, but she has lost the bulk of her memories. But maybe a mission will bring those memories back? That's the premise of "The Return of The Bionic Woman (Part 1)" and "The Return of The Bionic Woman (Part 2)."
Those four episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man are included in the season one DVD set of The Bionic Woman. That's great for completists who like to collect everything and it works in another way also.
Season one of The Bionic Woman is the weakest of the three seasons. A large reason has to do with the way she was presented on The Six Million Dollar Man. That's carried over to the two-part series opening which will, at best, have people raising eyebrows as Jaime is clearly sexually harassed.
The fact that the man is a 'nice guy' really doesn't matter. Jaime needs a job and can't find one in public schools (as a teacher) so Oscar arranges for her to go to a military school. There she learns of the job from the same man who flirts with her and asks her out.
Too much of the first season was all about reassuring viewers that Jaime was a girl, a girly girl, a little girl waiting for a man. What ABC and many men working on the show never grasped was that the audience had not only already accepted Lindsay Wagner's character, they had embraced Jaime.
Failing to grasp that viewers aren't waiting for proof that Jaime's a 'girl,' the character is infantalized in several episodes. When Steve's mother Helen goes with her on a mission -- Jaime has to pose as a beauty queen -- you quickly grasp that the only thing worse would have been Steve's father going with her.
With two super fast legs and one super strong arm, ABC and people with the show were clearly worried that Jaime might be 'too threatening.' So we were constantly reassured that she was desired by men, that she was monitored by elders who were parent-like figures (she even lives in their carriage house), and she was always waiting to take orders from Oscar.
Now The Bionic Woman is one of the great shows of the seventies. But, if you're going to appraise the entire series and do so honestly, you have to admit that this is the weakest of the seasons. Fortunately, as season one goes along, it gets stronger and stronger.
The four best episodes are strong ones. The beauty pageant is a famous episode of the show and that's for good reason. "Bionic Beauty," written by James D. Parriott lets Jaiime sing ("Feelings") and also circumvents the natural story flow by having Jaime and her rival (Cassie Yates' Sally) meet up at the end in a scene that goes to the sort of depth and layering that would be the show's hallmarks. As an added bonus, the scenes of Jaime jumping up to her hotel room and from her hotel room are filmed really good and give viewers the giddy high of bionics in a way that too often is ignored.
"The Jailing of Jaime" (written by Bruce Shelly) also features some great use of bionics. Jaime's delivered some high tech gadgetry to a man she thought was a general. It's all a set up. And how she's under arrest. Demanding something to eat and drink, she gets her jailer to walk away allowing her to use her bionics to knock bricks out of the exterior wall so she can escape. There's also the magic moment where she goes soaring up to the second story of a building. Oscar's trying to help as she's hunted but his hands are tied and Jaime must fight to prove she's innocent.
Jaime's always at her best when she's got to fend for herself but she's also capable of caring for the one that everyone else writes off. "Canyon of Death" (written by Stephen Kandel) finds one of her students, Paco (Guillermo San Juan) being creative to stand out and getting slammed for it. The other teachers don't care for him, the students make fun of him. Jaime and he come to an understanding which is especially good because someone's trying to steal a flying suit and Jaime needs help getting a message to Oscar. "Mirror Image" (written by James D. Parriott) is a special treat because Lindsay Wagner gets to play Jaime and the bad Lisa Galloway who's had cosmetic surgery to look like Wagner. Not only does Jaime have to prove she's the real Jaime, this sets the stage for season two.
Those are the four strongest episodes, they are not the only strong ones. "Claws," for example, is pure Jaime. Few other TV characters could be plugged into that episode and be believable.
Along with teaching, Jaime spends the season being a flight attendent, a beauty contestant, part of a driving team and, as the season goes along, the writers begin to grasp that they have something special with Lindsay Wagner and need to utilize her unique qualities to make Jaime stand out. Wagner became one of a handful of actresses to star carry an hour long show with The Bionic Woman. First came Angie Dickinson with Police Woman, which debuted in September of 1974, then Lindsay in January 1976 and then Lynda Carter in April 1976 with Wonder Woman. September of 1976 would find three actresses (Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson and Jacyln Smith) star in the hour long Charlie's Angels.
All of the actresses brought something strong and unique and helped enlarge TV's portrayals of women. Lindsay Wagner's special gift there was in showing smarts and strength with a concern for life that really drove the show. Not a concern for law and order. The other actresses tended to essay that. Wagner's Jaime Sommers zoomed in on what was right and if that conflicted with the law, oh well.
Was she so concerned with life -- humans and animals -- because she had artificial limbs? An argument can be made for that. Season one finds the writers playing with several strands -- and also writing generic -- before they seem to grasp that Lindsay Wagner's providing the character and they need to start writing to her strengths and kill the generic idea that's floating in their heads. When this is grasped, viewers no longer have to endure scenes where Steve parents are parenting poor, can't remember Jaime. When that falls away, the show gets stronger and moves towards its core as Jaime's own inner core is strengthened.
Season one is not a bad season. But it is the weakest of the three. It works best as a set-up for what's to come and also to demonstrate that Lindsay Wagner remains one of TV's strongest actresses. We covered "The Bionic Woman Season Three" and we'll do two more features this month.