Titillation Television

Angels in America: Jaclyn Smith, Kate Jackson, and Farrah Fawcett-Majors

Angels in America: Jaclyn Smith, Kate Jackson, and Farrah Fawcett-Majors

A TRIO OF magazine covers that hit the stands in November of 1976 made it clear: After a decade of women's lib, the times were a-changin' once again. Harper's held a somber "Requiem For the Women's Movement." Ms. mirrored the Me Decade by wondering, "How's Your Sex Life?" And Time did its part to support "TV's Super Women" with a revealing shot of the stars of ABC's brand-new hit Charlie's Angels, about the private investigations of "three little girls who went to the police academy." At least in part, this embryonic slab of "jiggle TV" reflected real-world progress: Earlier in the year, for example, the U.S. Air Force Academy had broken tradition by allowing more than 150 women into its ranks. Yet Charlie's producers took pains to clip the wings of its earthbound angels whenever possible. As the series' original production notes put it: "It is essential that each of the girls be in jeopardy at least once during every episode."

One needn't have been of the generation that took the plunge for Farrah Fawcett-Majors's wet-bathing-suit poster to know that this post-Police Woman exercise in action-adventure as S-M was big business. With its "girls" leaning over the office speakerphone to take orders from their unseen, pimplike boss, Charlie's Angels became the highest-rated new weekly series of the season, at one point drawing 59 percent of all TV viewers--and $100,000 per minute in ad revenue. "It's just a microcosm of America in 38D cups," claimed one rival producer by way of pitching a competing series set in the general vicinity of this mountainous terrain. Be that as it may, Charlie's Angels hit on its own metaphor with the fourth episode, "Angels in Chains," in which our heroines (Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith, and Fawcett-Majors) infiltrate the Pine Parish Prison Farm for Women and encounter a butch female guard (Mary Woronov) who gleefully forces them to strip, shower, submit to a disinfectant spray, and attend a bordello cotillion in lieu of performing hard labor in the potato fields.

Interestingly, charges of abuse were later filed not by the show's aggrieved actors, but by its millionaire male producers, who stood accused of conspiring with ABC officials to defraud the series' profit participants. Following the most dramatic investigative case of Angels' five-year run, acquitted moguls Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg issued a statement that their "faith in the American system of justice never wavered during seven months of harassment." Although the network declined to order a pilot episode of Spelling in Chains, it did create a ratings opportunity out of the scandal, devoting a fifth of its August 25, 1980 World News Tonight broadcast to an impartial recap of the spreadsheet jiggle taking place under its own roof.

By this point, however, nothing could slow the sag in Charlie's Angels. Both Jackson and Fawcett-Majors had flown the coop; Sears Roebuck & Co., spurred by protests from the National Federation for Decency, had pulled its ads; and off-Broadway habituée Tanya Roberts, despite her promise to "bust my ass" in the role, became the last of several substitute angels. Still, the rise and fall of titillation television may not have been without uplifting effects. Midway through Charlie's Angels' 109-episode run, the chairman of the National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting, Ralph Nader, was inspired to pen an article for Ladies' Home Journal titled "How to Fight Bad TV." Twenty years later, his advice remains critical. "In a federally funded project," Nader wrote, "education and television experts are putting together a curriculum called 'Critical Television Viewing Skills' that is aimed at teaching children to analyze and criticize TV. The project is still in the testing stage, but you may want to bring it to the attention of your schools now."