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Retro Binge: The Bionic Woman

Retro Binge: The Bionic Woman

Laurie Ulster

Everybody’s talking about what they’re binge-viewing, from new shows to Netflix documentaries to edgy shows they can brag about having devoured. Me? I went down the rabbit hole this week, and I don’t want to come out: I’m watching all three seasons of The Bionic Woman, the late 1970s show I remember loving as a kid… and apparently still love now.

In case this wasn’t on your must-watch list as a kid, The Bionic Woman was a spin-off of the Lee Majors show The Six Million Dollar Man; Lindsay Wagner guest starred as his high school sweetheart, Jaime Sommers, who was given bionic parts after a skydiving accident, and then died when her body rejected the bionics.

Wait–what? She died?

She did. But fans loved her, so the network saved her life and gave Jaime a show of her own. Like Lee Majors’ Steve Austin, she worked for Oscar Goldman at the OSI (Office of Scientific Intelligence), but she was also a middle school teacher on an army base, where she won over the kids with her intelligence, compassion, bionic hearing, speedy blackboard writing, and the ability to rip a giant telephone book (remember those?) with her bare hands while extolling the virtues of communication and friendship.

Re-watching now—the whole series lives on the annoyingly clunky NBC app—Jaime is no less revolutionary to me than she was in the 1970s. For one, Jaime is allowed to be the star of her show, and be beautiful, without having to wear skin-tight clothes or gobs of lipstick in every episode. But also, she’s allowed to be better, stronger, and faster than everybody else and still be just so… JAIME. She’s emotional, she’s empathetic, she rolls her eyes at ridiculous people, and she has compassion for almost everyone, even telekinetic Kristy McNichol who tries to kill her (Okay, but it’s Kristy – all is forgiven).

Sure, the show had a few requisite woman-on-TV tropes, my favorite of which was when she went undercover as a beauty pageant contestant and sang the terrible 70s hit song “Feelings” (Honestly, the episode is a gem). She went undercover as a “lady wrestler”, pretended to be a nun, and had to do the dance of the seven veils for a shah. Behind her back, male characters speculated that she was “too young and pretty” to be effective… before they were proven to be very, very wrong. (She was 28, by the way – how is that too young?)

But any Bionic Woman fan worth her salt is just biding time with season one, racing to those delicious season 2 episodes about the fembots (Just ask Austin Powers). The fembots were really scary when I was a kid, but also fun. I had no idea how they’d hold up. Frankly, I expected a sexist nightmare.

But that’s not what I got! Their creator, Dr. Franklin, did say that he could make his fembots “as beautiful or as deadly” as he liked, and I suppose I would have expected nothing less. But he had a damned smart master plan: He targeted the secretaries and assistants of the powerful men of the OSI, because “between each of these men is the human glue that holds the agency together.” This was the 70s: Jaime was the only woman there who wasn’t a secretary. The brilliant (but vengeful) Dr. Franklin knew who was REALLY keeping everything running: the women! “That’s pretty smart!” my 16-year-old son observed, passing through the room while I was watching. He’s pretty smart, too. The fembots, in all their glory, did not let me down.

For the trivia buffs, here are a few fun facts I discovered when I started reading about the show:

The original title of the Six Million Dollar Man episode that introduced Jaime? Mrs. Steve Austin.

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The reason Oscar takes off his glasses so much? It gave actor Richard Anderson a reason to hesitate for a second when he forgot his next line… he had a lot of detailed dialogue

Even Lindsay Wagner never understood why she had to move her hair out of her way to make her bionic ear work. “I can hear through walls, but I can’t hear through my hair?” she said in a DVD featurette. (I used to wonder how she slept at night, to be honest, so moving the hair out of the way worked for me.)  

The show was canceled by ABC after two seasons, and NBC picked it up for the third… which meant no more Six Million Dollar Man/Bionic Woman crossovers. But Oscar and Rudy Wells (Martin E. Brooks) continued to appear regularly on both shows, becoming the first two actors to play the same roles at the same time on two different series… on two different networks, no less!

I leave you with this truism: Oscar Goldman’s love for Jaime Sommers is pure and beautiful. I challenge anyone who claims otherwise.

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