TV reviews

Charmed 1×01 – ‘Pilot’ – TV Review

It seems there are in fact three certainties in life: death, taxes, and American movie and TV properties being regularly rebooted. A number of 90s and 00s telly programmes are on their way back to our screens, with Sabrina The Teenage Witch already having been relaunched as The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina on Netflix. A reimagining or continuation (it depends on who you believe) of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is also in the works, along with remakes of Roswell and The 4400 both set to debut in America on the CW network.

The CW is also behind the long-planned reboot of Charmed, which has come back to life after several abortive attempts to revive the supernatural drama series. The original – which ran for eight seasons from 1998 to 2006 – was on the air at the same time as shows like Buffy and Alias, which all had in common strong female leads. Although female-led dramas are perhaps more commonplace nowadays thanks to the efforts of shows like this, it wasn’t totally unexpected that Charmed would rise again one day, particularly in this era of gender politics being a major theme.

The concept is pretty much the same as it ever was – three sisters who find out that they are witches, having to use their craft, the Book Of Shadows, and the Power Of Three to stop varied supernatural threats to the world. However, things have very much moved on since Charmed was last on our screens over a decade ago, and we now live in a #MeToo, post-Weinstein age (with former Charmed alumni Alyssa Milano and Rose McGowan both being connected to this), where sexual assault and harassment are topics which have great prominence, and the new Charmed proves to be very much a product of its time. However, this isn’t always a good thing when it comes to the execution.

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The original Charmed, along with Buffy and Alias, all led with characters whose strength came from their actions, rather than needing to outright showcase any feminist credentials in an unsubtle or showboating manner. Sadly, it appears there’s been something of a regression in this respect, as this new Charmed is very blatant in its need to be a leading light in any female-oriented movements, and is at times extremely difficult to watch, as the pilot episode shows no lightness of touch or trace of understatedness when it comes to its messaging; in fact, at times it feels like an agenda or a manifesto, dressed up as a drama series.

Charmed really is trying too hard to set out its stall in the first episode, and as a result, almost seems like a parody of what it clearly means to be. Within the space of 45 minutes, we have references made to rape culture and consent; cis males; the ‘Time’s Up’ slogan is emblazoned across posters being put up on a college campus by one of the leads, who happens to be in a same-sex relationship; another one of the sisters is of mixed heritage; we’re told  being a witch is a “pro-choice endeavour”; and a college sorority describes itself as being “woke”. It honestly feels as if every SJW-leaning cliche is thrown in there, and it’s cringeworthy to see just how ‘right-on’ it tries to be, almost at the expense of the drama.

Equally as blatant is the deliberate choice of the villain for this opener – a professor at the college where one of the sisters is a teaching assistant, another is a freshman, and their mother also worked, who was accused of sexual harassment, and turns out to be a demon which feasts upon the energy of strong women. It’s hardly the most finely-drawn and nuanced way of getting home your theme, and it smacks the watching audience in the face in the most conspicuous and heavy-handed of manners. Short of perhaps making the demon look like a giant penis, there isn’t much more they could have done to make its point about slamming the patriarchy. Subtle, it ain’t.

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It’s an awful shame, as these are certainly very important topics and conversations to have aired, and a show like Charmed is potentially one of the best forums to do it in; however, it needs to try and learn to let all the deeply earnest handwringing take a backseat, and let the actual drama do all the heavy lifting here. Hopefully, the show will settle down as the season continues, as it will very quickly become tiresome if it keeps pushing a progressive agenda to the detriment of everything else, and browbeating, haranguing and hectoring its audience in the process, yet failing to be entertaining, which is pretty much its purpose.

Now, this may sound as though there isn’t much going for the brand new Charmed, but that’s actually far from the truth: the show actually has quite a lot in its favour. The three leads – Mel (Melonie Diaz) and Maggie Vera (Sarah Jeffery), and half-sister Macy Vaughn (Madeleine Mantock) – are a likeable enough trio (despite the frequent preachiness and sanctimony of Mel throughout the pilot), and seem to gel well (albeit perhaps a little too quickly to be totally plausible). Their whitelighter – or ‘guardian angel’ – Harry Greenwood (Rupert Evans) is an archetypal Brit, in parts Rupert Giles and Wesley Wyndam-Pryce from Buffy and Angel, and more than a smattering of Samuel Barnett’s Dirk Gently from the BBC America series of the same name.

The sisters’ quest to find out just who – or what – killed their mother at the start of the pilot is also rather reminiscent of the Winchester boys in Supernatural, which also happens to be on the CW, and is no bad thing by any means. In a very nice bit of casting, Melonie Diaz and Sarah Jeffery look sufficiently alike to be able to pull off being sisters, which certainly helps with the central premise. Relocating the show’s location from cosmopolitan San Francisco to the fictional Hilltowne (or ‘Helltowne’, as some of the locals have dubbed it) in Michigan does give more potential for its small town setting, bringing to mind the dark intrigue of programmes such as Twin Peaks and Riverdale, which may also be in Charmed‘s favour in the long run (assuming it ends up having one).

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Another nice twist here is that the powers aren’t slavish copies from the Halliwells of the original show, with the sisters’ gifts now including telepathy, which throws something new into the mix. The episode also ends on an intriguing cliffhanger, as the Vera sisters use a ouija board to get in touch with their mother, who sends them a message not to trust their whitelighter, Harry, indicating that his motives may not be as clear-cut as they first appeared. The show does show a lot of potential, and it will be an interesting ride if it manages to find its own rhythm, and not be quite so full-on each every single week. Charmed? Not entirely. But intrigued? Absolutely. In fact, sufficiently to come back for the next episode without too many qualms.

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