With all the 1970s knockoffs in circulation — including the current “Starsky & Hutch” feature spoof — it’s hard to believe another trip down memory lane in TV movie form could bring anything fresh to the party. Yet NBC’s behind-the-scenes formula for dredging up old series gets a surprisingly clever addition with this affectionate, at times very inside look at “Charlie’s Angels,” which doubtless mangles TV history but manages to have quite a bit of fun doing it.
The post-sweeps airdate suggests that even the network wasn’t entirely sure how this would play, especially since the main characters — beyond the actresses involved — are producers and execs, with Aaron Spelling (as played by Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson) front and center.
Still, there’s something hilarious about a movie in which Spelling announces with a straight face that the writers “can’t afford to make this show too good,” and whose sort-of villain, for lack of a real heavy, is none other than … Lee Majors!
Picking up at the People’s Choice Awards after the show completed its first season, the pic flashes back to a hapless ABC — overseen by Michael Eisner and Barry Diller — with the former telling Spelling to “come back when you have some show ideas that won’t make us the laughingstock of network television.” Insert your own joke here.
Soon, Fred Silverman (Dan Lauria of “The Wonder Years”) is in the programming hot seat and eventually relents to the campaign by Spelling and partner Leonard Goldberg (Bruce Altman) to greenlight a show about three sexy femme detectives.
Castellaneta occasionally sounds like he’s doing an impersonation of Robert Vaughn, but it’s still a toothy performance that has oodles of fun with Spelling’s super-producer persona. Chewing on his pipe at a party, for example, he sees Farrah Fawcett-Majors (underwear model Tricia Helfer, last seen as a seductive Cylon in “Battlestar Galactica”) in super-slow motion, wind blown and set to music.
At that point, Fawcett-Majors is the very contented wife of “The Six Million Dollar Man” star (Ben Browder), taking the gig essentially as a lark while her husband’s working. Kate Jackson (Lauren Stamile) comes aboard too, though she’s soon grousing about the show’s sexism, without much support from Fawcett-Majors or Jaclyn Smith (Christina Chambers), previously a shampoo model.
Despite disastrous testing, “Charlie’s Angels” premieres to boffo ratings, with its continued success prompting Spelling to backpedal on pledges to make the show less titillating.
Both Stamile and Chambers nail their characters’ voices, as does an off-camera Orson Bean sitting in for John Forsythe — who became the unseen Charlie as a last-minute replacement, we’re told, after a big-name star showed up drunk.
Writer-exec producer Matt Dorff (“Growing Up Brady”) and director Francine McDougall pepper the story with ’70s tunes and knowing little references, such as Spelling’s daughter Tori, then just a moppet, pleading, “Daddy, can I be on TV when I grow up?” There’s even a debate with broadcast standards about the problem of “nipple protrusion,” with Spelling helpfully offering to tape them down if need be.
If there’s a beating heart in this mostly heartless little tale, it belongs to Fawcett-Majors, who is unprepared for stardom and wounded by the toll it’s exacting on her marriage and increasingly jealous husband, played by Browder with a perpetually arched eyebrow.
None of this should be taken terribly seriously, though a few of the issues half-heartedly raised — from exploiting women’s sexuality to the dubious predictive power of focus groups — certainly resonate in the biz today.
Granted, it remains something of a mystery why this particular era is viewed as such fertile terrain for TV and movie sendups, inasmuch as the younger half of the 18-49 demographic was at best barely sentient when “Angels” premiered.
Still, since everyone appears determined to fish out of that pond, there’s something to be said for doing so with a touch of wit and style. In that respect, “Behind the Camera” comes away looking pretty good, nipples and all.