4 reasons why ‘Charlie’s Angels’ still matters after 40 years

In 1976, Charlie’s Angels premiered on ABC to much fanfare turning Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith into some of the biggest celebrities of their day. The show had its fair share of detractors however. Remember the phrase, “Jiggle TV?” With the three Angels regularly put in provocative situations, often in skimpy outfits, some critics felt the show lacked substance. This would prove to be an Aaron Spelling cornerstone. He was famous for making escapist TV. Despite its lack of substance, Charlie’s Angels helped change the TV landscape forever. Here are four reasons why Charlie’s Angels still matters.

Charlie’s Angels proved that women could headline a successful series. Charlie’s Angels wasn’t the first television series to feature a female lead. Julia, The Carol Burnett Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Maude, Police Woman and Wonder Woman had all premiered before Charlie’s Angels and were all successful to one degree or another. Despite this, ABC executives were nervous about airing a TV show with three female leads fighting crime. In fact, ABC network executives Barry Diller and Michael Eisner called Charlie’s Angels, “the worst idea we ever heard.”

In the TV movie that would act as its pilot, network suits cast David Ogden Stiers (who would go on to star in M*A*S*H) as the underboss to Charlie. After the pilot aired, producer Aaron Spelling convinced ABC to get rid of Stiers’ character with his and Bosley’s characters morphing into one for the series. Charlie’s Angels would end up finishing the 1976-77 TV season as the #5 rated show of the year with an average of 26 million viewers.

Charlie’s Angels might have been the launching pad for Aaron Spelling’s prolific producing career. Though he had produced well-received series before in The Mod Squad, Starsky and Hutch and The Rookies (which co-starred Kate Jackson), Charlie’s Angels became a cultural phenomenon. Though initially reluctant, ABC was thrilled that the show became one of the biggest hits in ABC’s history. This resulted in a fruitful partnership with Spelling. ABC would go on to air other Spelling productions like Family, Vega$, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Hart to Hart, Dynasty, T.J. Hooker, The Colbys and Hotel. Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, Charmed and 7th Heaven were other Aaron Spelling hits on different networks.

Charlie’s Angels might have inadvertently kickstarted Meryl Streep’s career. Streep won her first Oscar for her portrayal of Joanna Kramer in 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer. Though she already had her first Oscar nomination under her belt for 1978’s The Deer Hunter, she wasn’t the first choice for the part. Kate Jackson was originally offered the part. Kramer vs. Kramer director Robert Benton asked Spelling for permission to coordinate their shooting schedules so Jackson could play the role, but Spelling refused. Jackson was furious and announced during the middle of the third season that it would be her last. This leads to the fourth reason. After finishing #5 its first season, Charlie’s Angels finished #4 in its second and was still riding high during its third.

When Kate Jackson announced her decision to leave Charlie’s Angels, ratings dipped immediately. Though the show’s popularity didn’t take a hit after Farrah Fawcett’s exit, Jackson’s exit proved too much. The show finished at #12 that season with ratings falling drastically in its fourth and bottoming out in its fifth and last. If the Charlie’s Angels producers had been willing to work with the Kramer vs. Kramer shooting schedule, Kate Jackson might not have left the show. And what if Kate Jackson had earned that Oscar win, or even “just” a nomination? This is reasonable to infer considering she had earned two Emmy nominations for Charlie’s Angels, proof that she had the respect of her peers. That would have given Charlie’s Angels millions of dollars of unpaid publicity.

Producers seemed to have learned their lesson. Take Friends for instance. Friends was a Top 10 mainstay for its entire ten season run. This might not have happened if the Friends producers had taken the hard line stance that the Charlie’s Angels producers did earlier. Courteney Cox was cast the role of Gale Weathers in Scream but the production schedules overlapped. The productions worked together to allow Cox to shoot both roles at the same time. Friends would also go on to do that for its other cast members as well.

Would Charlie’s Angels have lasted ten seasons if they had allowed Jackson to shoot both parts concurrently? We will never know. But it’s a good bet that Friends wouldn’t have lasted ten seasons if its producers hadn’t worked around its stars’ schedules.

With hundreds of channels to choose from nowadays, there are plenty of female-led shows. Hello Lifetime, WE and OWN. It wasn’t too long ago that we didn’t have as many platforms and networks to choose from. Did Charlie’s Angels pave the way for future female ensemble shows like The Golden Girls, Designing Women and Sex and the City before the masses had access to a thousand channels? I think so.

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