TV Review: ABC's 'Charlie's Angels'
Here's a flawless blueprint on how not to reboot a franchise
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The "Charlie's Angels" brand has some value, but ABC has a few problems with that brand.
First: There certainly are people with warmth for the original TV series, which was a fairly earnest piece of Aaron Spelling cheese, elevated to glorious action eye candy by Farrah Fawcett (and, to possibly a lesser extent, by Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith and Cheryl Ladd).
The problem: If you watched "Charlie's Angels" when it premiered in 1976, even if you have fond memories of it, there's at least a possibility that you may be outside of the demographic ABC truly cares about. Also, you probably won't think that the beloved tone of the jigglefest has been well captured in this mannequins-on-parade interpretation.
Second: The 2000 "Charlie's Angels" film with Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu was a pretty big hit and although it wasn't exactly an Oscar movie, as tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top sexy action-comedies go, it was pretty superb.
The problem there: [We'll leave aside that 2003's "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" was a less big hit and far less well received.] Repeatedly mentioning Drew Barrymore's name in promotion and even bringing her out at the Emmys isn't going to obscure that no matter what the "Charlie's Angels" movie was aiming for, tone-wise, that's not what ABC's reboot is aiming for in any way and no matter what kind of trailer ABC cuts together, there's actually no way to make it look like there are similarities.
So, really, whether you loved "Charlie's Angels" in the '70s or you loved "Charlie's Angels" in the '00s, you aren't going to see your version of "Charlie's Angels" celebrated on ABC on Thursday (September 22) night. There are many ways to honor or respect "Charlie's Angels" and this version achieves none of them and, in the process, it doesn't honor or respect viewers who come in without a vested interest of any kind.
I thought "Charlie's Angels" was bad when I watched the original cut back in May, but watching it a second time in what was a barely tweaked revised pilot was utterly excruciating. "Charlie's Angels" is entitled to be interpreted so many different ways, but hitting this level of tedium is almost astounding.
Full review after the break...
CBS had a similar problem with "Hawaii Five-0" last year, only worse. The network had a brand with some equity, but mostly to older viewers and, in that case, a brand that hadn't be leveraged for a blockbuster film franchise. CBS' solution was weirdly revolutionary: They took the franchise seriously and went out and made a good pilot. I'm not going to say anything about the series "Hawaii Five-0" has evolved into, but that Len Wiseman-directed pilot had feature-level cinematography, feature-level action sequences and enough darned energy that whether or not you cared about Alex O'Loughlin's Steve McGarrett, it was easy to be entertained.
I couldn't really tell you what ABC's approach to "Charlie's Angels" is. It's pretty unforgivably confused, in fact. If you have dialogue as stilted as what Alfred Gough & Miles Millar penned and actors as wooden as leading ladies Rachael Taylor, Annie Ilonzeh and Minka Kelly, it's almost your best bet to just go for camp, to try to achieve the level of trashy fun that syndicated beachfront dramas achieved almost by default throughout the '90s. If you taking that approach, though, you know what you can't have? You can't have a child traffic storyline, complete with gritty images of kids in bondage. You can't have flashbacks to a Central American political conflict, complete with children in peril. And you can't have a scene of graphic torture involving one of your leading ladies. There's a level of realism that absolutely, positively must be earned and if you don't earn it, you come across as exploitative. And "Charlie's Angeles" is allowed to be (or at least expected to be) exploitative with low-jeopardy action scenes or with its scantily clad leading ladies, but this was a kind of exploitation that made me feel dirty (in a bad way) and a little angry (in a bad way).
It's far better with a franchise like this to take the entire conceit as lightly as possible. If you fail then? At least light failures go down easy. But if you take this conceit too seriously and you fail completely, you make what ought to be a popcorn series go down like noshing on a handful of unpopped kernels.
So anyway, our new Angels: Abby Samson (Taylor) is a Park Avenue princess, whose father was basically Bernie Madoff, so it's marginally appropriate that she's a world class thief. Kate Prince (Ilonzeh) is a former cop who disgraced herself in a way that I'm assuming will prove to be noble or at least for a good cause, though we haven't learned it yet. There's also a third Angel, Gloria. The opening credits want you to take her seriously and she's a former soldier and whatnot, but you'll notice pretty quickly that she isn't Minka Kelly and that she therefore isn't relevant.
There's also Bosley (Ramon Rodriguez), who has been reshapped as an MIT-trained computer whiz with an active libido and magical computer tablet that lets him do all of the research, background stuff previous Bosleys have done, while also being out in the field where he can showcase his rock-hard abs.
The first case, as mentioned earlier, involves a human trafficker code-named Pajaro. It's a bad choice for a code name, because of the leads, only Rodriguez can say it properly. I eagerly await future Spanish pronunciations from the cast, which may be inevitable, since the story is set in Miami.
I mention that nobody can pronounce "Pajaro," but there's a lot of dialogue in "Charlie's Angels" that nobody can spit out while retaining dignity. This goes back to my suggestion that with a different angle, going for camp would have been easier and safer.
I present to you, sample dialogue from the Gough & Millar script:
*** After rescuing a young girl: "Who are you? You don't look like cops." "We're not." "We're angels."
*** Regarding Pajaro: "He's a ghost." "Ghosts aren't real. This guy is and he needs to pay."
*** Dealing with grief: "I never thought my heart could hurt this much."
*** As proof of determination and delivered without irony: "We're going to find out who did this." "If it's the last thing we do."
*** Wisdom from Charlie: "Just remember, you're angels of justice, not angels of vengeance."
*** Self-explanatory: "We're angels, not saints."
*** What the [bleep] does this even mean: "Abby put the cat in 'cat burglar.'"
That's only a start. You'll have your own favorite lines.
And did I mention that the Angels are able to find the bad guy's whereabouts because HE TWEETS?
And the thing that's worse is that not only do the Angels talk like this, but they talk like this a lot. There are long, horrible scenes of planning in which pilot director Marcos Siega just gives up entirely. There's no effort to stage or spice up the dialogue and all of the actors are just doing their best to get the words out.
I don't know what the weather was in Miami when this pilot was shot, but I'm going to guess "cold," because at least that would explain why all three lead actress seem so uncomfortable throughout. As Emmy viewers already know, they have no chemistry together and Gough and Millar can't even given them dialogue that would stand in for chemistry. The only time there's any warmth between them comes at the end, when we learn that Abby likes to borrow clothes from her fellow Angels. Somebody told the writers that's what women do when they're friends.
Earlier, I included Taylor amongst the stars I accused of being wooden and that's not completely fair. Taylor is by far the best of the available Angels, both when she has action scenes and when she's forced to say lines that the writers thought were clever, but really, really aren't. Ilonzeh is asked to do nothing and barely registers. Kelly, with a surplus of back story, is asked to do a lot and it proves beyond her abilities. There's one speech in which Kelly's character is recalling the death of her parents and she has a half-smile that becomes weirdly enigmatic in the worst way possible. And again, there's no energy between any of them, nor with Rodriguez, who I guess I'd describe as innocuous.
I have no choice but to place a lot of the blame on Siega, though who's to know what's his fault? The action scenes are woefully choreographed and uninspired, but is that his fault or the limitations of the actors and second unit? I don't know. Within 20 minutes of watching, I defy you to remember anything that happened in the pilot, action-wise. I guess they decided not to go for the goofy explosiveness of the movie (or of "Hawaii Five-0"), but I couldn't tell you what they decided to go for instead. The action is neither realistic nor cartoonish. It's barely connected to the rest of the show.
But good action requires successful execution. You work at it, but failure is as logical an outcome as success. Failing to make Rachael Taylor, Minka Kelly and Annie Ilonzeh sexy when they're wearing red leather devil outfits? Well in that case, you've taken what ought to be a default position and you've done something much more difficult. These are great looking women and they're theoretically well consumed for at least some sexiness. Then why is everything so sterile? Why does everybody seem so uncomfortable? I go back to my "it was cold," theory, but that's an excuse, not an explanation. Siega has actually been just fine at getting sexiness on "Vampire Diaries" and "True Blood," so I don't have a clue what went wrong here.
But I guess I do have a clue. I've gone through many, many ways in which "Charlie's Angels" fails, from the script to the direction to the acting. Really, though, the root cause is what Linda Holmes isolates in her very fine NPR review: This was a show made without any love from anybody involved.
ABC made because it liked the idea of making a show called "Charlie's Angels" on its schedule, but I don't think they made it because they adored Gough and Millar's vision, or because Siega proved he had the perfect way to realize that vision or because Minka, Annie and Rachael walked into a room and somebody said, "These MUST be our Angels." This was a mechanical process, not an artistic one. So who's surprised the result is so lame?
"Charlie's Angels" premieres on Thursday (September 22) night at 8 p.m. on ABC.