Not counting the opening credits, it takes over 22 minutes for Wonder Woman to show up in the third season Wonder Woman episode “Amazon Hot Wax.” But then what else is new? On American TV in the ’70s, live-action superhero shows were nearly always stingy with the main attraction. Even when the likes of Shazam! and The Incredible Hulk would break out the colorful costumes and makeup, the good guys were rarely gearing up for some spectacular comic-book action. In “Amazon Hot Wax,” Wonder Woman doesn’t fight Circe, The Cheetah, or even The Duke Of Deception. Instead, she’s pursuing a ring of thieves/extortionists, who are hassling an independent record label. At times, the ’70s Wonder Woman TV show was like watching the weekly adventures of a demigod whose job was to get cats out of trees.
As for Wonder Woman the character… well, she too has been an afterthought for too much of her existence. The comics industry has done okay by her for the most part, but even the best writers and artists have had a hard time living up to the strangely particular standards of her creator. Psychologist William Moulton Marston originally conceived the whole idea of an Amazonian super-heroine as an exercise in indoctrination, meant to spread to children his philosophies of female superiority. Because of this, the early Wonder Woman comics are kinky and personal and oddly inspiring, in ways that subsequent creators have reckoned with with wildly varying degrees of success.
Television and movies meanwhile have had little use for Wonder Woman, outside of the one series that ran on ABC and CBS between 1975 and 1979. She’s been a part of the various DC Universe animated shows, dating back to Super Friends, and over the years there have been several abortive attempts to feature her as the solo star of a cartoon, live-action TV series, or film. Currently, Warner Brothers is including the character (as played by Gal Gadot) in next year’s Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, with plans for a stand-alone Wonder Woman movie in 2017. But the latter project has already undergone a change of directors, and longtime WW-watchers have learned not to count on anything happening with the Amazon princess until she’s actually on a screen.
So to this point, the best, longest showcase for Wonder Woman (beyond the comics page) has been her 1970s TV show. That’s not ideal, though it’s not terrible either. The series has its charms—in particular the bright screen presence and strong physicality of the star, Lynda Carter. TV producers had attempted a live action Wonder Woman twice before: first in an unaired 1967 pilot that aimed for the campy quality of the 1960s Batman; and then in a TV movie that presented the character more as a jump-suited secret agent. But the Carter version was the closest to the comics, in conception and in costume.
The first season, which aired on ABC, took place during WWII, with Wonder Woman fighting Nazis. When the show moved to CBS, the setting was updated to the modern day, and the situations became more mundane—although Carter continued to look stunning in the various iterations of the heroine’s star-spangled shorts and gilded bustier. Because of the name “Wonder Woman,” and because of the character’s pedigree, the series did at times try to use its lead as a feminist icon (sort of like what Gloria Steinem did when she put WW on the cover of one of the first issues of Ms.). But like other ’70s shows, Wonder Woman ultimately became a vehicle for dropping Carter’s familiar face into half-realized storylines that tried to cash in on current cultural trends.
The big question then for a person watching an old Wonder Woman episode like “Amazon Hot Wax” today is, “What exactly do I want out of this?”
Here are some possibilities:
1. Future stars!
“Amazon Hot Wax” has Wonder Woman operating undercover as aspiring singer “Kathy Meadows” (as opposed to her usual alter-ego of Diana Prince), to infiltrate the recording industry and nail a criminal organization responsible for stealing the last recordings of a missing, possibly dead rock star named Billy Dero. In between demo sessions, Kathy/WW follows a trail of suspicious activity that winds past two of the biggest acts on the roster at Dero’s label, Phoenix Records. The oddest of these is Antimatter, a trio of anarchic shock-rockers in painted faces, led by Anton, played by a pre-superstardom Rick Springfield. The members of Antimatter figure out that Dero is faking his own death, to add to his legend (and thus drive up his music sales).
Antimatter’s biggest nemeses at Phoenix are Jeff and Barbie Gordon, a Donny and Marie-esque “wholesome” pop group, played by Judge Reinhold and Sarah Purcell—the latter a few months before she became a household name as a Real People co-host. It turns out that the villainous Barbie masterminded the heist of Dero’s tapes, in part to make money, and in part to exact revenge on the immoral rock ’n’ rollers she loathes.
2. Pop music!
Carter sings two songs in “Amazon Hot Wax,” both of which she co-wrote, and both of which were originally featured on her 1978 debut album, Portrait. So in a way this episode (which aired in early 1979) is like a backdoor pilot, not for another TV series, but for Carter’s music career. After Wonder Woman was canceled, Carter did a 1980 variety special (featuring Kenny Rogers and Leo Sayer) and continued to pursue pop stardom, though it would take over 30 years for to make another record. Her lack of a breakthrough isn’t that surprising. Frankly there’s nothing all that special about her two numbers here—“Everybody,” and “Toto (Don’t It Feel Like Paradise)”—except in the way they try to exploit the two hottest trends in popular music at the time, by fusing disco with soft, breezy country-rock. Lynda Carter’s problem was similar to Wonder Woman’s: No one in showbiz appeared to have the imagination to figure out how best to use her talents.
It’s fun to play “spot the reference” in this episode’s take on the late ’70s music industry, beyond the ersatz Donny and Marie. Antimatter is like a combination of KISS and any number of “outrageous” punk/New Wave/metal bands. The members of Antimatter sleuth out Billy Dero’s secret by playing one of his records at different speeds, revealing a secret clue to where he’s hiding out. The guys even crack several jokes about The Beatles/“Paul is dead” hoax, in case viewers couldn’t already tell where credited writer Alan Brennert got the idea for this subplot.
3. 1970s kitsch!
The opening shots of “Amazon Hot Wax” establish the Hollywood milieu, via images of The Bee Gees’ and Elton John’s respective stars on the Walk Of Fame. And that’s not the only way the episode announces its ’70s-ness. The proliferation of feathered hair and porn-staches are a clear marker, as is a villain lamenting that once Dero turns up alive, they couldn’t trade his last recordings “for a John Travolta poster.” At times this Wonder Woman plays like a TV adaptation of any given issue of Dynamite! magazine.
Even without the era-specific references, Wonder Woman could be awfully corny. “Amazon Hot Wax” represents the show at its most stilted, with a lot of exposition punctuated by reaction shots of people nodding—or worse, musical numbers interrupted by people nodding and smiling. A lot about the episode is plainly ridiculous, from the way the guys in Antimatter wear their make-up even when hanging around the studio, to the way that the show’s nominal co-star, Lyle Waggoner—who played Steve Trevor in the first season and Steve Trevor Jr. after that—is only in about three scenes, all of which feature him on the phone checking in with Diana. (Waggoner could’ve wrapped his entire contribution to “Amazon Hot Wax” in less than an hour.)
The action sequences are also problematic; they’re visually incomprehensible for the most part, except for the elements that the producers wanted to be sure to emphasize, namely Wonder Woman running in slow motion, and Wonder Woman jumping very high. Each season, Carter’s costume got a little skimpier and was cut a little lower, as if to compete with the wave of “jiggle shows” proliferating on the other networks. Superheroics on Wonder Woman often took a back seat to blatant objectification.
4. Wonder Woman!
Here’s the thing, though: While there seemed to be more and more of an “eh, good enough” approach to Wonder Woman the longer the series ran, it still delivered the goods, if only to comics-besotted youngsters who didn’t have many other options on TV at the time. I should know, because I was one of those kids. Wonder Woman debuted when I was 5, and ended when I was 8, and I watched all three seasons as they aired. I remember very little about any given episode; but I remember the hell out of Lynda Carter twirling, and deflecting bullets with her bracelets, and extracting the truth from villainous creeps with her golden lasso.
I also remember Isis, and Electra Woman and Dyna-Girl, and Batgirl and Catwoman in the Batman re-runs that were on in syndication all the time. There may have been a paltry amount of superheroes on television back then, but at least a healthy percentage of them were women. Even if the reasons for this were suspect—possibly more for purposes of titillation than for any pro-feminist agenda—the images of these costumed heroines flying, zapping, lifting, and punching were still indelible. As is so often the case when it comes to superheroes, fans could extrapolate and imagine what wasn’t happening on-screen, based on a few awesome scenes per week. Somewhere there’s a grown woman or man who watched “Amazon Hot Wax” and spent hours dreaming up a whole string of imaginary tales, featuring Wonder Woman as a pop sensation.
It’s just a shame that actual TV writers and producers had such a difficult time thinking up amazing adventures for these women. In “Amazon Hot Wax,” Wonder Woman barely figures into the story at all. The conflict is mainly between Antimatter and Jeff and Barbie; only occasionally does Wonder Woman swoop in to keep everybody in line. She could be excised from the episode entirely without losing much, at least in terms of the plot. But then most people who were watching this show back then—be they children or pervs—were watching for the 15 minutes or so of wild Wonder Woman action, not for the dopey scenarios.
Even the other characters treat Wonder Woman as a passing curiosity, not as a major part of their little drama. They’re pleased to see her, but not especially surprised or delighted. She’s of so little consequence to the guys from Phoenix Records that they can spend a whole day with Kathy Meadows and never suspect that the very similar-looking lady who keeps saving their lives could secretly be their new recruit.
Some of that ignorance is superhero convention, and some can be explained away by Wonder Woman’s powers and tools, which help her to influence men. But there’s also something distressingly symbolic about how little the major players in “Amazon Hot Wax” pay attention to the show’s star. Why don’t more people recognize her? Fellas, she’s right there.
Next time… on A Very Special Episode: Happy Days, “Hollywood”