“To my three beautiful daughters, may this give you the light to find the shadows. The power of three will set you free. Love, Mom.”
With US TV network The CW’s reboot of Charmed having reached our shores, it’s the ideal time to hop back 20 years and take a look at the original version of the show, revisiting the pilot, ‘Something Wicca This Way Comes’, in order to see exactly how the predecessor fares against its young pretender, and whether or not the new version has actually managed to recapture the same magic.
The basic premise of the show remains pretty much the same as in the reboot – three sisters who find out they actually come from a long line of witches, and discover the Power Of Three is the key to their newly-discovered powers, as well as the Book Of Shadows – a collection of spells and incantations passed down over the generations. We also see an estrangement between two of the sisters early on in the pilot, leading to a conflict which needs to be resolved in order to save the day. So far, so similar.
However, a striking difference is in how the overall vocabulary of TV production seems to have changed over the years. The pilot of the original Charmed does look markedly different not only to the brand new version, but pretty much any modern TV drama. The whole affair is shot in a very conventional, almost stagey manner, with no clever camera shots, angles or setups, and very little style or flair evident. It’s as if the director has just walked off doing a standard procedural Police drama, and filmed Charmed in exactly the same flat, conventional way. There’s certainly no indication that the production team seems familiar with visual effects, whether CGI or practical, and the whole look is rather cheesy and clunky.
Now, that’s not a criticism of a show for looking dated just because special effects and TV production standards have moved on since 1998: Buffy The Vampire Slayer had started the previous year, and had its own fair share of challenges when it came to realising the supernatural spectacles required of the scripts in the early days of that show. However, Buffy‘s pilot appears to have aged somewhat less badly than Charmed‘s, mainly because it seems to have had a higher level of competence behind the camera when it comes down to realising the visuals. To be fair, it was probably a very steep learning curve for producer Aaron Spelling, who was best known up to that point for shows such as Charlie’s Angels, The Love Boat, Hart To Hart, Dynasty, and Beverly Hills, 90210.
Okay, so perhaps the script stands up to scrutiny? Well, again, the passage of time has meant that in comparison to current drama series, Charmed‘s pilot has a rather slow and almost languid pace at times, and is also very low on moments of significance, which is surprising given what it has to try and pack into its first episode. The central conflict between Prue (Shannen Doherty) and Phoebe (Alyssa Milano) seems to be resolved in rather too pat and straightforward a manner to be entirely satisfying, and it seems to have a lot of build-up without any real payoff, or leaving any dangling threads to be addressed later on in the season, which might be dramatically far more rewarding.
However, the pilot at least manages to do a reasonable job of establishing the bond between the sisters, even if it does lead to a clunky exchange between Phoebe and Piper (Holly Marie Combs), with the sort of shameless info dump the writer felt was necessary to fill in a lot of backstory in very short order, but wouldn’t be the sort of conversation you’d really ever have, and seems forced and unrealistic as a result of all the exposition. A clear case of very much needing to show, rather than tell. Other than that, it does tend to plod along in a pedestrian manner, lacking any real sense of urgency in its storytelling, whereas the new iteration of Charmed managed to pack in so much more (in fact, probably rather too much) into the equivalent runtime.
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When it comes to the eventual reveal of the Halliwell sisters’ powers, there’s no real sense of awe or gravity for the most part, and it gets thrown away in a series of cheap parlour tricks and ill-judged slapstick humour for Prue in particular, where she causes an ex’s pen to leak, and almost chokes him with his own tie by use of her telekinesis. The ex in question – Roger (Matthew Ashford) – also happens to be her boss, and he takes her off the museum exhibit she’d been curating out of pettiness. Sadly, the performance is so broad and arch that Roger feels like he could have walked out of a sitcom, not a prime time drama, and seems to reflect the overall uneven tone of the pilot, as if the production team isn’t quite sure how to pitch it, and tries to cover all its bases with little success in delivering at any of them.
The curse of most series pilots is the need to have minimal plot, out of necessity to do all of the worldbuilding required to try and establish the show’s central premise and core characters. Charmed therefore can’t be blamed for having a story which errs more on the straightforward side, but thankfully doesn’t seem to suffer for it. The villain of the piece is a warlock who’s been killing witches in San Francisco, in order to steal their powers. The big revelation is that he turns out to be not only a Police detective, but also Piper’s boyfriend – he’s been lying in wait for the Halliwell sisters’ powers to emerge, so that he could take them for his own. The ‘crooked cop’ reveal could have been hackneyed, but they manage to pull it off reasonably well; however, the climax is rather baffling, as the Halliwells manage to make the bad guy magically explode just by chanting “The Power Of Three will set us free” over and over. No, me neither.
All in all, the premiere of Charmed is a mixed bag, as it’s stylistically all over the place, but has a strong central concept, as well as three charismatic and engaging leads in Combs, Milano and Doherty. It’s odd to look back at the pilot not only with the hindsight of knowing how the series developed and progressed, but also with a reimagined version treading much of the same territory, yet achieving far more in just one solitary episode. There’s certainly lots of potential, and the seeds of a very good show in this opener, but perhaps the real magic here is that it managed to grow beyond what was a rather stiff, awkward beginning, and become so popular that it came back from the dead for a revival two decades after it first appeared.