Believing In Badness

I was going to write something about why the new Charlie’s Angels is turning out to be a stiff (in quality and ratings) while the original show was a hit. But Linda Holmes beat me to it. Though I didn’t think the script for the new show was completely unworkable (but then, this type of show doesn’t depend on the actual writing, so it’s hard to judge), in execution it’s turned out to be rather cynical and pointless. And I think an obvious difference between the two version is that Aaron Spelling was completely committed to making trashy television. As a commenter here said a couple of years ago, Spelling’s shows “were dumb, but they weren’t dumbed down,” meaning that what he gave the viewers was exactly the kind of thing he liked. Charlie’s Angels, the original 90210, Melrose Place, Charmed and all the other Spelling hits had what we might call sincere stupidity: they were ridiculous, but they were giving us what the producer loved, not just what he cynically thought the audience would love. The first Charlie’s Angels movie, while it had a sense of irony about the material that Spelling (the most un-ironic producer in TV) wouldn’t have countenanced, also enjoyed being trashy and did its best to be fun on that level. The new version just gives the impression that everyone wishes they were doing something smarter.

One of the most traditional show business myths is the idea that you can have a hit just by pandering to the lowest common denominator; someone with a flop will say that he or she could have a hit by selling out. But I don’t think that’s exactly true. Something written out of hate and contempt for the audience is probably not going to succeed, because people can sense when nobody’s having fun. If something bad succeeds, it’s often going to be something bad that was done with conviction, just like the good stuff that succeeds.

Of course, you can’t read people’s minds, so you can’t say for sure that certain shows are done out of cynicism. You also can’t say for sure that nothing good has ever been created out of secret contempt. (Sometimes the creators manage to succeed through open contempt, by channelling that contempt into something interesting or personal, making it fun for them. Like the creators of the Batman TV series disliked the comics and thought they were ridiculous, so they created a satire of comic books. But they found an approach that worked for them; I don’t think the show would have succeeded if they had dutifully tried to write a serious comic book story as if they believed in it.) But I do think that making a hit is more complicated than just pandering to the lowest common denominator; if that worked, then making a hit would be much easier than it actually is.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.