Thursday, May 20, 2021

13 Reasons to Watch the 1970s WONDER WOMAN

I recently finished a re-watch of the 1975-79 WONDER WOMAN TV series, which I purchased on DVD in 2004 because that was just what we did back then! But as with so many of my Blu-rays and DVDs, the three season box sets mostly sat on my shelves gathering dust, until Covid quarantine made all this hard media again seem like a great idea. After just over two months of (mostly) nightly viewings, I finished all 60 episodes (counting the TV movie pilot) and have some notes. Is the show perfect? It was a 1970s TV superhero show, of course not! But there are many reasons to watch, some snarky, some not. Here are thirteen of them. 

In the pre-recycling days, apparently everyone just left dozens of giant, empty cardboard boxes stacked up everywhere. Which is lucky for the villains of the 1940s and the 1970s, who had nice, soft cushioning for those times when Wonder Woman threw them through the air (which was pretty much every episode). Remember this the next time you’re folding up those cartons to stick in recycling… is there a chance you might be tossed like a rag doll across your garage? Might wanna hang onto some of those assembled Amazon boxes (pun intended). 

In both pilots (the 1975 ABC TV movie and the 1977 CBS reboot), you might notice something strange about the Amazons of Paradise Island… despite living in a feminine utopia, away from the trappings and edicts of a patriarchal society, they’re all wearing… panty hose?!? Even on the beach! This unlikely fashion choice would follow Diana to her life in “Man’s World,” where she not only wears stockings as Wonder Woman, but in every possible scenario…. even with a bathing suit at the swimming pool or a nightgown at bedtime or in a tropical jungle! Heck, she probably even has them on under her diving outfit!

WONDER WOMAN was hardly the only culprit in this era, where TV pretty much eschewed bare legs on everyone. Chrissy Snow and Daisy Duke (look ‘em up if you have to, Gen-Zers) both wore stockings with hot pants and high heels. But to watch it in the 21st Century, the abundance of redundant—and no doubt uncomfortable—hosiery is rather distracting (if you’re inclined to pay attention to things like legs). 

In the first, WWII-set season, the show paid attention to era-appropriate costuming and hair for the principal actors. The guest stars… not so much. As with HAPPY DAYS (set in the 1950s and early ‘60s), once the era was firmly established, that kind of verisimilitude kinda went out the window. Watch for Nazis sporting ‘70s shag haircuts and sideburns or a kidnaped scientist’s suit that looks like it came from the wide-lapelled Johnny Carson Collection. Also, for bonus points, watch the background for 1970s cars, airplanes, and signage! (My favorite anachronism: In the pilot film, an unattended newsstand displays a copy of SUPERMAN #261, cover dated Feb., 1973!)

Poor Lyle Waggoner. He never got the girl. The romance between Major Steve Trevor and Wonder Woman that was building in Season One got chucked out the window once the show shifted to the modern day and Waggoner began playing the son of his 1940s character. Presumably, the producers thought it might be creepy for Diana to hook up with her old flame’s offspring, and they weren’t wrong. But as the show went on, Trevor not only lost out on romantic action, but all other kinds as well, as he eventually became an IADC desk jockey, shuffling papers instead of socking bad guys in the jaw alongside Wonder Woman. Still, Waggoner never stopped portraying Trevor (both of ‘em) with anything less than 100% square-shouldered earnestness. And just look at those gleaming teeth! 

Most of Wonder Woman’s powers (which she derives from Aphrodite’s Magic Girdle… er, Belt, and does not have when she’s Diana Prince) are accompanied by super ‘70s sound effects, just to remind the viewer that this is not Normal Woman. 

Of course, there’s the spinning transformation from Diana to Wonder Woman (with accompanying non-diegetic explosion). She can’t fly, but she can leap tall buildings—as well as gardens, fountains, cars, construction equipment, and any other structure bigger than a bread box—in a single bound (with accompanying ascending / descending exaggerated whizzing sound). She’s super strong (any person or item thrown by Wonder Woman moves so fast it creates a whooshing sound only slightly less subtle than that of George Reeves’ Superman taking off in flight) and able to deflect bullets with her Amazonian bracelets (the sparking ricochet effect set off by triggers concealed in Lynda Carter’s fists, but you knew that, didn’t you?). She can run really fast (over ten miles a minute according to a late S2 episode), even sometimes in high heels (see #3)! She can force people to tell the truth and do what she says by ensnaring them in her magic lasso (which somehow emits computerized bleeps and bloops during this procedure). She can use her tiara as a boomerang, and can perfectly impersonate anyone’s voice

Oh, and, like Dr. Doolittle, she can talk with the animals (whether or not she can walk with the animals, grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals remains to be seen).

Both the ABC and CBS shows’ guest star roster reads like a 1970s-themed trivia game. Robert (Mike Brady) Reed (with ‘70s ‘stache and turtleneck in 1942)! Lance (JAMES AT 15/16) Kerwin! The great Cloris Leachman camping it up like she’s in a BATMAN episode! Gary “Radar O’Reilly” Burghoff (Lynda Carter’s cousin)! Kenneth Mars (taking time off from Mel Brooks movies)! Popular mime duo (you read that correctly) Shields & Yarnell! Pop idol Leif Garrett (in two roles! And still with hair!)! LAUGH-IN’s Henry Gibson (sadly not reciting poetry)! Martin Mull as a flute-playing rock star / magician / thief (who sang the songs in the episode himself!)! And of course, “Introducing Debra Winger” as Diana’s sister, Drusilla, aka Wonder Girl (in a perfectly awful costume)! Whew! All that’s missing is Jimmy “J.J.” Walker and Charo! 

Okay, first, let’s agree that the “real” Wonder Woman costume is spot-on, a near-perfect realization of the comic book outfit. Sure, the bullet-bra and giant shorts of Season One can look a little weird if you stare too much (STOP IT!), but when the show moved into the 1970’s designer Donfeld’s costume looked better than anything we’d ever seen in a comic book adaptation (with the possible exception of Tom Tyler’s Captain Marvel suit in the 1941 serial).

But whenever Diana needed to make use of alternate transportation or do some diving, a second spin brought about alternate costumes that haven’t exactly stood the test of time. The “Scuba Suit” (complete with flippers once Diana hits the pool, er, ocean), which also doubles as her biker outfit (with added star-spangled helmet) feels more like something Cathy Lee Crosby would wear in the original, ill-fated 1974 telefilm). The single-use skateboard ensemble features knee and elbow pads (are they even necessary?) that just look silly. But no alternative outfit is more eye-rolling than the conservative, flesh-covering riding outfit that Roy Rogers insisted Lynda Carter wear in the western-themed Season One episode, “The Bushwhackers.” Practicality has no place in superhero shows, Roy! 

I do like the cape that Wonder Woman wears to formal functions, though. 

Thanks mostly to production budget restraints, WONDER WOMAN couldn’t hide mountains (or palm trees) in the background in location shots that were supposed to be Washington DC or other East Coast settings. Lots of California-shot TV shows up through this era just kind of ignored this unavoidable snafu, mostly because nobody thought anyone would be repeatedly re-watching these shows in their homes on hi-def TVs! WE DIDN’T KNOW THE FUTURE! 

Towards the end of S3, there was a one-off episode that indicated Diana was being moved out to the west coast branch of the IADC (and being given a new supporting cast including a smart-alecky kid, an ersatz-Bionic Man, and a chimpanzee!), but by the next episode, she was back in DC with Steve Trevor. Would a fourth season have eliminated both Steve Trevor and the geographical flubs (as well as taken away Diana’s frequent flyer membership)? We’ll never know. 

The invention of the “Inter-Agency Defense Command” was actually a good way to allow Steve and Diana to get involved in all manner of national and international crime and espionage. But the agency’s tech has aged about as well as any computers of the era. The enormous, info-gathering, room-filling IRAC computer (nicknamed “Ira”) utilized a robotic voice straight out of a 1950s Sci-Fi B-movie. Even more laughable is the small, roving computer (named “Rover”) that delivers mail and other small items like glue and passports actually speaks the Looney Tunes’ Road Runner’s “Beep Beep” as he rolls down the hallways of the IADC (via being pulled with a very visible wire). Damn thing makes Twiki look like The Terminator. 

But the IADC computers come off better than the supercomputer in the S2 episode, “IRAC is Missing,” as the machine displays its wiped memory by literally saying, “Uh, um… er, uh…” Evil robots fared even worse, often looking like they were constructed out of some of those leftover cardboard boxes, dryer hoses, and silver spray paint. 

And while we’re at it, even Lynda Carter admits embarrassment over Wonder Woman’s invisible jet, a plastic model in which we can see a translucent seat (in which an obvious WW doll sits) and center stick, but no engine! It does, however, come with piped-in elevator muzak, making WW’s urgent missions feel like a jaunt to a Beaches resort. 

THE NEW ADVENTURES OF WONDER WOMAN might not be the MOST Seventies show ever (I’m going with THE CAPTAIN AND TENNILLE or ALL IN THE FAMILY), but there’s enough iconography to keep any fan of that era spellbound: The (mostly) giant, lumbering CARS: Buick Skylark, Lincoln Continental, AMC Matador, Cadillac Coupe DeVille, Chevy Chevelle Malibu, Bel Air, Nova, Monte Carlo, and Camaro, Ford LTD and Gran Torino, Pontiac Firebird, heck, there was even a dune buggy!!; FASHION: Enormous, oversized glasses, bell-bottoms wide enough to camp in, platform shoes, floppy hats, satin jackets, peasant blouses, fat neckties, and wiiiiiiide collars!; FADS: skateboarding, disco, glam rock, UFOs, computer dating, and, uh, gymnastics (on more than once occasion, Wonder Woman leapt onto mysteriously-placed, high-hung parallel bars to do a quick routine while spellbound evildoers stood and gaped until the heroine dismounted right into them!). Oh, if only there were a punk episode of WONDER WOMAN. 

Let’s just say it’s a good thing this isn’t a drinking game. First, there’s the inconsistency of Diana’s Golden Lasso, whether it suddenly turns into a fat, brown rope, or grows to hundreds of feet long (I mean, it is magic, so you could argue this is not a continuity error, but let’s just go with it). 

But the most common costume continuity flub concerns Wonder Woman’s red-and-white boots, which switch from heels to flats numerous times in every single episode. Obviously, this depends on whatever stunt is being performed (sometimes she runs in heels, sometimes not, but she never, ever does a super-leap in them). Which raises the question, why bother with the heels in the first place (aside from the obvious trope)? The character didn’t always wear heels in the comics, the 5’10” Carter didn’t need them to appear statuesque, and wouldn’t it be a nice feminist touch to have Wonder Woman in flats? 

I’m just gonna go ahead and say it: There is no better superhero theme ever written. Oh, sure, some can sidle up alongside it… the 1960s SPIDER-MAN cartoon theme, BATMAN 1966, John Williams’ majestic SUPERMAN theme. But are any of those as unshakeable an earworm that Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel’s supremely catchy theme? And there are four different versions (I’m partial to the funked up final version from S3, even though I do miss the lyrics). C’mon… “In your satin tights / fighting for our rights / and the old red, white, and blue?” That’s WAY better than “Batman / Batman / Batman / BatmanBatmanBatman!” C’mon admit it… the WW theme is stuck in your head now, isn’t it? You’re welcome! 

Okay, time to get serious. Because the main reason to watch the three seasons of WONDER WOMAN is… obviously…. Lynda Carter. Not to put too fine a point on it, but she was absolute perfection as both Diana Prince and Wonder Woman. She’s every bit as good as Christopher Reeve playing Superman (and she beat him to the punch by a few years). And it’s not just that Lynda looked the part. Like Reeve after her, she underplayed Wonder Woman, allowing the costume to convey the Wonder while she focused on the Woman. Also like Reeve, Carter had a gravitas and maturity that belied her young age (both actors were in there early 20s when they first put on the costumes). Rising above even the cheesiest special effect or lamest plot, Carter made every episode worth watching. Regardless of whether you first saw her as Wonder Woman on Friday nights on CBS in the ‘70s, or in reruns on cable in the 2000s, or in a YouTube clip just last week, it’s hard to argue that (all due respect to Gal Gadot, who is admittedly great in the role), Lynda Carter will always be the definitive live action Wonder Woman. 

But speaking of the heir to the tiara, here’s one more reason to watch Lynda Carter’s WONDER WOMAN: To maybe appreciate Gal Gadot’s much-maligned WONDER WOMAN 1984 just a little bit better. I remain convinced that director Patty Jenkins’ intention with the ill-received 2020 sequel was to pay homage to the glorious cheesiness of not just this series, but all action / adventure /superhero shows of the 1970s / ‘80s. If you look at WW84 in that context, treat it as a big budget episode of the TV show, it actually works a little better (a little) than if you simply compare it to the admittedly far superior 2017 WONDER WOMAN. 

Because let’s face it, as much as we love them, superheroes…. Are goofy. Godlike beings in skintight costumes fighting bad guys, most of whom don’t stand a chance against them? Regardless of how many coats of angst or black we paint on them, it’s ultimately a kid’s fantasy that we, as adults, enjoy nonetheless. Because as WONDER WOMAN (the show) reminded us week after week… it’s inspirational, it’s cathartic, and mostly, it’s an awful lot of fun. 

NOTE: This piece was originally posted on 13th Dimension. 
You can watch WONDER WOMAN streaming on HBO Max, on Amazon Prime, or on DVD.