TV Review: Charmed Reboot (Episodes 1 – 11)

So, I must confess…when the Charmed reboot was announced, I was simultaneously elated and filled with dread. What were they going to do with it? I wondered to myself. And on the CW? Then came the pictures of the leads and they didn’t look quite right. And the previews of the episodes seemed strange and foreign. I waited, and I waited patiently, to form my proper judgments.

See, I grew up on Charmed. I even made my own version of Charmed for my own amusement – many times, in fact, with many different spins upon the same theme. I was obsessed with fantasy stories when I was a child, and still am! Once Upon a Time, Game of Thrones, Merlin – to some extent Doctor Who – are testament to this fact. And Charmed was the one that started it all. It was so great as well as a young boy to watch a TV programme in which three strong women are in charge and fighting monsters. Never would a day go by without me squinting aggressively at an object in my room hoping that it would magically spin into my hand, or dramatically wave my arms at something half-expecting it to freeze where it was. (Sometimes I still do this, but I’d prefer to keep that just between the two of us).

Holly Marie Combs (Piper Halliwell), Shannen Doherty (Prue Halliwell) and Alyssa Milano (Phoebe Halliwell) in Pre-Witched.

For those uneducated amongst you, Charmed was originally broadcast between 1998 and 2006. Originally starring Shannen Doherty, Holly Marie Combs and Alyssa Milano as Prue, Piper and Phoebe Halliwell, the story revolved around three sisters who happened to be witches. These sister witches possessed The Power of Three, said to be the most powerful force for good in the magical universe. Along with their unique powers of telekinesis, freezing time and precognition, the three women had to battle both literal and metaphorical demons within their lives.

Alyssa Milano (Phoebe Halliwell), Holly Marie Combs (Piper Halliwell) and Rose McGowan (Paige Matthews) in Witches in Tights.

Though Shannon Doherty’s character was killed off (sorry, spoilers) at the close of the third season, she was swiftly replaced by a half-sister witch Paige Matthews, with similar powers. This allowed for character development in the original two sisters who had to transform their original familial roles to accommodate for the new sister. The show really hit a stride with its dark Season 4, though lightened up and explored new avenues over the next four series, drawing to a close with a slightly limp eighth series. Nevertheless, this series holds a great place in my heart.

My initial impression was that too much was going on within the first episode. I stand by this. The original Charmed series took quite some time to establish the core elements of its magical universe. The fleshing out of some principles such as the organisation of the Underworld and of the Elders took quite a few series to get fully fleshed out and clear in the early days. It seemed that this series wanted to hit the ground running, and immediately expose the three sisters to their whitelighter and the magical world that they were inhabiting.

Furthermore, they were also faced with a brand new half-sister Macy (Madeleine Mantock). That is revelation enough without the added complication of finding out that you are witches. The original series was very clear that this is a story about sisters who happen to be witches, but it’s awkward to see these three women finding their feet as individuals and humans as well as finding that supernatural connection between them. On top of all of these existing subplots within just the first forty minutes, there is also the matter of the murder of Maggie (Sarah Jeffery), Mel (Melonie Diaz) and Macy’s mother, which happens within the opening minutes and continues to be a running thread.

Apart from this rocky start, however, Charmed is showing itself to be greatly structured television. I recently complained that lots of TV nowadays considers itself to be one coherent storyline throughout a season and forgets to make each individual episode compelling. Charmed does not fall into this trap: within the first couple of episodes we are exposed to vastly different tones and contrasting plots of the demons of the week. Within the span of 11 episodes, we have encountered an ice demon, a malevolent demon posing as the spirit of the sisters’ mother, a manifestation of the Harbinger, a revenant, a shadow demon, shapeshifter and a new, different coven of witches known as the Sisters of Arcana, who pose a threat to the Elders. Moreover, this series has also introduced us to a new concept: that of Tartarus, a prison for the worst demons in existence.

What Charmed is doing throughout these episodes is also weaving crucial and subtle plot points. It isn’t the main focus every week, but Macy’s character journey is being developed as she struggles to uncover her mother’s reasons for giving her up. Within the episodes so far this series, Macy’s storyline has been cunningly interwoven. It does not overtake every single episode, but rather there is a reference to it even while battling the current demon. There mystery is being gradually unfurled in each successive week while still maintaining the overall narrative trajectory and allowing engaging stories to be told. It does not alienate the casual viewer, as each episode can still be appreciated as standalone without needing extensive knowledge of what has come before.

Another continuing storyline is the sewing of distrust between at least Mel and the Elders, as well as her seduction into the Sisters of the Arcana. I always distrusted the Elders within the original Charmed, as they were far too prescriptive with their rules that they imposed upon the sisters and often end up appearing as a more damaging evil. It is nice to see this series tackling it head on, as Mel begins to question their authority within each successive week.

I think that it was my extensive knowledge of the original Charmed that prevented me from enjoying this reboot as much as I would have done with zero preconceived notions. Whether consciously or not, the entire time I was watching the pilot episode, I was considering “ooh, that’s not like the original…”, which is unfair for a show that is striking out on its own and eager to explore new territories. I entered the Charmed universe when it was already established, allowing me to discover it within its peak. Had I become interested in it when it was first being transmitted, I might have had the same reservations with it as I had with this reboot. Some of the early episodes are laughable, and while it hit its stride by the first season finale (one of the best episodes, by the way – I watch it all the time), there are lots that I skip through.

The reboot clearly has a strong idea of self and it knows where it is headed on this journey. There is no sense of filler episode – every episode furthers the sisters’ plot strands into the next week. The way that they are using story arcs to enhance their weekly storytelling is a great callback to the television that I used to enjoy. I look forward to review the complete series in more depth later in the year.

One bothersome element:

I am all for queer representation on television – I mean, obviously I am – but did the creators have to make the aggressive, neurotic, feminist sister the lesbian one? It would have been so much more compelling to have the meek, traditionally feminine, slightly vacuous and popularity-obsessed youngest sister be eager to join a sorority and be a lesbian; that is so much more interesting! They still could have had Mel be aggressively feminist – that’s brilliant and I stand by it. But coupling the two comes across to me as sort of man-hating in a way, and almost undermines her feminist ideals and viewpoints.

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