The (Short) Life and (Quick) Death of Charlie’s Angels

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Well, that didn’t take long. While not quite the first new show on the fall 2011 schedule to get cancelled, the Charlie’s Angels reboot did survive much longer. After scathing reviews and ratings that were weak to begin with, and went downhill from there, not even a spot of same-sex canoodling on set could shore things up. Four weeks in, ABC pulled the plug. Let’s start with those reviews, shall we?

  • “ABC’s new drama Charlie’s Angels seem to want to go back to the ’70s to rustle up some girl power, but it fails miserably and offensively… It contains some of the worst acting of the last decade on network television, much of it by Minka Kelly. The writing is atrocious… It sets the standards of television back to, well, the lesser efforts of the 1970s. And that’s nostalgia nobody needs to relive.” – Hollywood Reporter
  • “A cluttered, poorly acted, ridiculously predictable wannabe action show with an alarming wardrobe budget and few surprises… Would be better if it was faster-paced, grittier, and the characters should be more flawed – because that’s how audiences like their heroes in the new millenium.” –
  • “A silly hour of escapism even less believable than Vampire Diaries. If you were looking for something witty or sly, I think you were out of luck.” – Entertainment Weekly
  • “It’s unlikely anyone expected much from a revival of that eye-candy progenitor Charlie’s Angels; the surprise is that you’re getting so little… [The original] had energy and glamour and a self-aware sense of frothy fun, all of which are missing from this lugubrious update.” – USA Today
  • “The truly and genuinely terrible acting…is hard to separate from the execrable script they’ve been saddled with… It feels like pre-chewed food: intended for easy digestion, it comes out (1) unappetizing, (2) textureless, and (3) devoid of character.” – NPR

It could perhaps have withstood these barbs, if it hadn’t been for the poor ratings. 8.76 million viewers watched the Sept. 22 premiere, leaving it third in the timeslot, with less than half the audience for CBS and Fox’s offerings. That was disappointing enough, but it lost 19% of its audience the following episode, and by week three, it was down below six million. The death-knell was that, among the 18-49 year old demographic key to advertisers, Angels was on a mere 4% of the TVs in use during its time slot.

I watched the show, albeit out of a sense of duty more than real expectation; I loved the first of Drew Barrymore’s movies, but was unimpressed with the sequel, and the series seemed to fall uncomfortably between paying homage to the original, and being in tone with modern action heroine mores. Said creator Alfred Gough, “It won’t be campy or retro. The characters are real and emotionally grounded, but they still like to have fun, wear great clothes, solve crime and kick some serious ass.” And, unfortunately, take orders without question from an unseen male boss. While the makers could hardly dump that, it’s an angle that now comes off as less whimsical than creepy and stalkerish.

This illustrates a tension that couldn’t be adequately resolved. They killed an Angel with a car-bomb early in the first episode, but the show also had silly banter about handbags, and the results possessed an unevenness of tone that dogged things for the entire run. Trying to balance dark and light on television is a lot harder than it looks, and few shows manage to do so effectively; those in charge here should have watched and taken copious notes from Burn Notice, which does this much better (and is also set in Miami).

Mind you, they’d be hampered given there’s little indication of any significant acting talent among the lead trio, whose laughter seemed perpetually forced and who gave their characters little in the way of distinct personalities. I also have to wonder if making them all ex-criminals – rather than underutilized cops, as in the original – made it harder to empathize with them. However, there is also a lot more competition among action heroines these days; when the original aired, kick-ass chicks (even to the limited degree in Angels) were rare. Now: not so much, and Nikita or Sidney Bristow would eat up and spit out the entire trio, picking their teeth with the bones.

That said, the series was not without its moments, and the action, though sporadic, was generally okay – they did at least use guns, despite the presence of Drew Barrymore as a producer. Ironically, the last episode before the death sentence was handed down, was probably the best. This was a loose remake of a cult favorite from the original series, Angels in Chains, which saw the trio thrown into a Cuban prison being used as a source of women for a call-girl ring (I’m sure that was also the plot of a full-on exploitation pic, but I’m damned if I can remember the name). It benefited from a good supporting cast: Erica Durance as a CIA agent, Elizabeth Pena as the prison warden and James Morrison (who played Jack Bauer’s boss Bill Buchanan in 24) as a corrupt businessman.

But I can’t confess to feeling upset in the slightest that it has gone, beyond a sense of vague disappointment that any series involving action heroines has bitten the dust – there aren’t enough on broadcast TV. I’m sure it’ll be used as “proof” that these shows just don’t work, but the problem here was less the concept than the execution. While not the worst remake attempt to come out of Hollywood lately (no-one who saw Knight Rider will argue!), it was a poorly-conceived adaptation of a show that truly was a product of its era, and should have been left as such.

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