With the announcement that ABC is going to launch a reboot of Charlie’s Angels, I just had to revisit this show that I loved as a kid. (I had all the dolls and their van.) It kicked off with a movie-of-the-week (MOW) in September of 1976.
Other than the slightly longer-than-normal length, there is nothing to give away that this isn’t just a random episode; this is a pilot with virtually no exposition. The premise is laid out for us right in the opening credits, as in every episode. Three female cops, frustrated by menial assignments, left the force to go work as private investigators for a man named Charlie.
As in most episodic police dramas, we open not with the main characters, but with the scene of a crime. At a dusty racetrack populated by female drivers, a car explodes in a glorious fireball; we know we’re in for action.
Our introduction to the trio of protagonists comes as they learn of the tragedy in their office. These three impossibly skinny women with blinding white smiles sit languidly around the posh room, while a cheery-looking man, Bosley (David Doyle) sits at the desk showing slides of the crime scene. Charlie, whose voice we know from the opening sequence, speaks to them by phone, explaining what is known about the case. The head mechanic from the track, Jerry, has hired them to investigate the crash on suspicion of murder.
Each of the women, in turn, asks an intelligent question so we get a good look at each one. They’re gorgeous and well-dressed. Each of their names is worked into the dialogue; Kelly (Jaclyn Smith), Jill (Farah Fawcett-Majors) and Sabrina (Kate Jackson). As if the show’s creators feared we might forget Sabrina’s name, it’s emblazoned as a gold necklace across her tanned neck, and later on a fitted T-shirt.
The gag with Charlie is that he seems to be off living the high life, in perhaps less than well-kept secret, while conducting his business long distance. There is a pretty shockingly suggestive joke, for the era. Charlie is moaning in apparent pain about his lower back, but the audience sees that he is in the midst of a massage administered by a bikini-clad woman standing between his shoulder blades. “It will just be the matter of some deft manipulation before I’m standing as erect as ever,” he declares.
As the case unfolds, we are introduced to the angels’ and Bosley’s under cover talents. Sabrina coincidentally has marginal experience as a racecar driver, so she rolls in as the new girl on the track. Bosley shows up in a battered camper as an evangelical preacher with Jill as his Bible-peddling daughter whose legs inspire anything but piety. Kelly plays the damsel in distress, fiddling with her VW Bug’s engine to attract the attention of a suspicious mechanic.
Possibly one of the most memorable scenes takes place when Jill joins in a poker game to milk information from the pit crew. The blonde bimbo routine, we can predict, will come in handy for her on a regular basis. As she feigns ignorance only to reveal herself as a shark, the audience gets a look at her arsenal of talents, as well as a few laughs. But if she is just there to get information out of the mechanic why does she need to clean house in the game? Oh well…
Variations on the show’s now well-known theme music are used throughout to build suspense. The women find themselves in danger as the culprits grow suspicious of them. There are a couple of intense moments, and we really don’t know what the angels are capable of physically. The toughest thing we see is Kelly weakly waving a handgun toward the end. Personally I think Sarah Walker could kick all their asses. They prevail, of course, over the murderer and his accomplices. We go out on some good-natured ribbing and a shot of Charlie in a hot tub, surrounded by babes.
NOTE: The pilot described above kicked off the first full season of Charlie’s Angels in the fall of 1976. I’ve since discovered, via Ultimate Charlie’s Angels, that a different MOW aired the previous spring, having to do with the angels solving the mystery of a missing vintner. I’ll have to blog about that one of these days.