`Charlie's Angels': Heaven help us

TVPreview

March 08, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Hot on the heels of Starsky & Hutch, which arrived in theaters Friday, comes Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of "Charlie's Angels" on NBC tonight. Who could have guessed that pop culture in the new millennium would showcase recycled lame ABC television series from the 1970s? Postmodernism sometimes works in strange and depressing ways.

Though some critics describe Starsky & Hutch as a campy romp, NBC's behind-the-scenes story of Charlie's Angels is not illuminating, amusing or ironic. The attitude, style and tone necessary for a campy show seem far beyond this simplistic production's reach.

Beware TV films that use flashbacks to tell their stories. It often means that the screenwriter and producer lacked the imagination to rearrange time within the narrative so that the past feels like the present. The Unauthorized Story opens in 1977, when Charlie's Angels was named "favorite new TV show" at the People's Choice Awards. Hardly a narrative highpoint, but it's better than what follows.

The show then flashes back to the birth of the series. In this scene, Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg of Spelling-Goldberg Productions (the production company that also created Starsky & Hutch), meet for lunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

"You know what we need? A new challenge," says Spelling (Dan Castellaneta), lighting his trademark pipe.

"Got anything in mind?" asks Goldberg (Bruce Altman).

Spelling is shaking his head when he notices three women at the bar watching two men look inside a briefcase. Spelling's eyes bug out, and the tableau at the bar becomes a fantasy sequence in which the women grab the briefcase (now filled with bags of white powder) and subdue the men with karate chops and kung-fu kicks.

The problem is not just that the use of a fantasy sequence comes out of nowhere (to never reappear). It's also that the cheesy scene plays like a cartoon. But it is meant to be a serious rendering of the moment of inspiration - at least, as it has been recounted by Spelling, one of the great make-it-up-as-you-go-along spinmeisters of Hollywood history.

But let's not quibble about such history. NBC's own description of the source material for this show tells us all we need to know about its historical bona fides: "The main source consulted for the movie is the book Charlie's Angels Casebook by Jack Condon and David Hofstede. Condon, considered to have the world's largest collection of Charlie's Angels memorabilia (topping off at more than 8,000 items), has interviewed all six Angels series actresses and counts several of the women as personal friends."

What could be better, except maybe if he were a close personal friend?

The film never finds a steady tone, let alone any kind of narrative focus. The nearest thing to a central story line is the heartbreak of being Farrah Fawcett, the Angel who became a cultural phenomenon, thanks mostly to a poster that was all tanned skin, white teeth and big blond hair.

"I can't remember who I am anymore," Fawcett (Tricia Helfer) says tearfully in her big dramatic scene. It's just this side of laughable, but again the film is not going for laughs.

Culturally, the stories of Fawcett and Charlie's Angels are important. One reason the series mattered is that in its own weird way it connected profoundly with what had been happening in the larger culture under the heading of the women's movement.

In 1976, I wrote the first "Farrah Phenomenon" story for the Detroit Free Press. You could look it up, right down to the pop-culture professors in the piece explaining the "deeper meaning" of her hair, and how these Angels spoke mostly to the backlash against women's rights (as opposed to the Angels-as-symbols-of-progress readings found in NBC's film).

I never liked Charlie's Angels. But, believe me, it deserves far better treatment than this dull, on-the-cheap, made-for-TV movie. If we can't learn from the 1970s, at least we should be able to have a little fun with them.

`Charlie's Angels'

When: Tonight at 9

Where: WBAL (Channel 11)

In brief: This unauthorized movie is a dull, on-the-cheap attempt to catch some '70s retro ratings.

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