Tuned In

Robo-James' Time Machine: Angels in America

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When you remake a TV show that used to be a pop-cultural phenomenon, you’re remaking the idea of it as much as you are the show itself. That is, when ABC airs its reboot of Charlie’s Angels (or in this case should we call it a re-booty?), only part of the intended audience will be people who saw and remember the original. In fact, given the advance of time and demographics, those people may be the audience ABC cares least about. Then you have people who remember the show only atmospherically (through artifacts like the famous Farrah poster, &c.), those who have seen only the Drew Barrymore movie, or those, like me, who vaguely remember seeing it as a kid but only faintly remember what the original was like.

The idea behind the new version is that it’s a tougher, darker version of the Angels, more akin to a show like Nikita. So it’s worth going back to the original—or at least the introductory sequence above—to see what it’s supposed to be tougher and darker than.

The first thing that jumps out (besides the reference to “three little girls,” which survives, slightly altered, in ABC’s new pilot) is the change in the origin stories. In the new Charlie’s, in keeping with current action-thriller operating procedure, the Angels are former outlaws who’ve been given a second chance. What the old one emphasizes is that these are police women, who are being given a first chance to really do their jobs after they’ve been lady-tracked into desk work or traffic policing. Besides the women’s-equality angle, the premise shares a common thread with a lot of 1970s’ TV, which is a post-Watergate suspicion of government; after all, it’s the police department that failed the Angels, until Charlie “took them away from all that.”

Of course, this feminist message doesn’t distract the intro from showing us the real driving purpose of the show, which is to show us Farrah Fawcett-Majors in tight tennis shorts, Jaclyn Smith climbing out of a pool, and so on. (The Angels, evidently, hewed to a strict off-duty fitness regimen that also required them to be as hot as possible at all times.)

As it turns out, back in 1976, people would practice tennis on courts that happened to have landline phones perched next to the net. Indeed, maybe the most striking thing about comparing this old segment to modern action shows is how much mobile technology has changed the contemporary drama. In the new Charlie’s Angels—as on any thriller/espionage show now—characters are constantly getting cellphone calls, checking tablets computers, generally relying on a constant access to information that, from the standpoint of the 1970s, is something close to psychic ability.

Whereas in the old Charlie’s Angels pilot, the premise of the show (Charlie as unseen prime mover) required it to contrive to work a corded phone everywhere, even next to a horse corral. (The new pilot has an opposite issue; when it has the Angels take assignments from Charlie by speakerphone, a callback to the original, the idea of people sitting in the same room taking direction from a talking box seems anachronistic.)

Maybe the most jarring thing about these credits in 2011, though, is one I always notice when watching shows from the era: their length, taking a full two minutes to get past the main titles. That time could be used for commercials! They’re burning money, I tell you, burning it! And people wondered why the ’70s were a time of economic crisis.