The premise for Charmed must have sounded simple – a female-centric show about three witches living in San Francisco that would cash in on the success of Buffy The Vampire Slayer on the still-new WB network. They wouldn’t just be witches, but also sisters, relatable across demographics with Prue (Shannen Doherty) – the late-20s sensible one, Piper (Holly Marie Combs) – the neurotic middle sister, and Phoebe (Alyssa Milano) – the wayward college dropout.
The late-90s was an era of US network television that fostered a whole bunch of series focusing on ‘kick-ass’ female leads – Buffy, Xena, Dark Angel etc. – but what Charmed wanted to do was slightly different. From the start, the show focused as much on the ordinary lives of Prue, Piper and Phoebe as it did on their extracurricular magical activities, living by the famous mantra of “not witches who happen to be sisters, but sisters who happen to be witches.”
It was clear after the pilot episode broke ratings records that The WB had a fresh hit on their hands and, after running for a total of 178 episodes, it later became the longest-running show featuring all female leads in history (surpassed later by Desperate Housewives at 180-episodes). It was lightning in a bottle, tapping into an audience that wasn’t really being served at the time.
The sisters cared as much about their outfits and their love lives (or other stereotypically ‘feminine things’) as they did about saving the world and, as easy as it is to dismiss that distinction in 2017, in 1998 it was still a fairly new thing to see on television. It was sex-positive in a way a lot of shows aren’t even today, and the chemistry between the three leads was palpable.
Overall, season one was shaky, and a lot changed between its finale and the following premiere (like giving Holly Marie Combs, the most endearing actress of the bunch, more material), but the first two years can be more or less lumped together and characterized as a fun fantasy procedural with a monster-of-the-week format and an equal focus on the soapy elements of the sisters’ lives. But then seasons three and four – the show’s best – stepped up their game in every conceivable way.
Suddenly there were long-running story arcs, and the show leaned into its genre roots in new and interesting ways. Instead of the girls’ dating lives running parallel to their witch duties (and invariably keeping the boys in the dark about their powers as default) Piper married their whitelighter (or, guardian angel) Leo and Phoebe entered an illicit romance with maybe-evil-half-demon Cole.
The tug-of-war for Cole’s soul lasted even beyond the fourth season finale as a long-game metaphor for abusive or toxic relationships, while Piper and Leo’s relationship became a solid emotional anchor for the remainder of the show’s run.
Now the weekly threat was rooted in character-building for one or more of the sisters, and those revelations carried over from week to week. Victor, the girls’ father, became a recurring figure in their lives, and introductions for The Elders (good) and The Source (bad) allowed for the world of the show to become a little more defined beyond the parade of faceless warlocks. The series still had plenty of camp and fun to offer, but overall things just seemed more accomplished, more deliberate, and more mature.
Season four carried forward this momentum, but with one major change. For reasons that have never been entirely clear (though there are plenty of theories), Shannen Doherty decided to leave the show after season three, leaving a very large hole right in the middle of the Power of Three. Her final episode, All Hell Breaks Loose – which Doherty herself directed – is ironically the finest the series ever produced.
Ending on a cliffhanger after which any of the leads could conceivably have been written out, the chaos behind the scenes could be seen almost bleeding through the screen. When the show returned for its fourth season, Rose McGowan had joined the cast as long-lost sister Paige Matthews – the product of an affair between Patty Halliwell and her whitelighter Sam. In season two this had been revealed in order to provide a mirror to Piper and Leo’s forbidden love, but it doubled here as an easy solution for the writers.
All of this was handled remarkably well given the circumstances. Early season four benefitted from a heartfelt exploration of Piper’s (and to a lesser extent, Phoebe’s) grief over losing her older sister, and the subsequent resistance she would feel towards accepting Paige as her replacement. As jilted as the audience felt, and as much as they warmed up to her in the end, the show made sure to reflect that.
But with a new character, so came a new tone, partially caused by executive producer Constance M. Burge stepping down from her role between seasons two and three, acting instead as executive consultant until the end of the fourth season. After this, The WB asked showrunner Brad Kern to drop the serialised structure that had been working so well, and asked instead for him to make the show more episodic.
Suddenly Charmed was a whole lot sillier, with mermaids, fairytale creatures and leprechauns becoming weekly occurrences, and any groundedness it could have boasted before was thrown out of the window. Despite containing a lot of important plot developments – such as Cole’s death in the 100th episode and the birth of Piper and Leo’s first child – season five was a significant step down in quality.
Season six was an improvement with a compromise between a long-running mystery surrounding Piper and Leo’s second child, but then the final two years were marred again by behind-the-scenes drama. Not knowing whether the show had been cancelled following season seven, things were wrapped up, leaving the writers in a pickle when it came to breaking story for season eight.
Thus came Billie, played by Kaley Cuoco – a young protege for Paige caught between the good and evil sides of magic. Universally hated, Billie is often cited as the beginning of the end for a show already on its last legs. Overall, season eight was a low for the series exacerbated further by budget cuts, which led to Brian Krause’s Leo being written out for half of the season simply to save money.
But despite its stumbles and its failures, the fandom around Charmed has never really dissipated. It’s still discussed whenever a similar premise finds it’s way on the air, and fans have been repeatedly threatened/teased with the prospect of a revival or a reboot.
Following recent reports of a CW revival, it’s hard to imagine a show that would bear any real resemblance to the original series, as steeped in the quirks of its era as it was. Charmed was always a show that seemed to be making it up as it went along, shifting character positions and plot lines around as it pleased with little eye on the long-term consequences of those decisions. That kind of method of storytelling no longer has a place in the time of ‘Peak TV’, but it is where Charmed found its way more often than not.
At a time when we’re still busy debating the merits of the Bechdel test and scrambling for good female-centric shows that will have ratings to match, it’s important to celebrate shows of the past like Charmed, and to remember why they were so great in the first place. Charmed’s commitment to depicting the lives of women going through their 20s and 30s was never superficial or cynical – from start to finish this was the series’ mission statement, and it succeeded.
Charmed is the epitome of a show that amounts to more than the sum of its parts, as iconic for its depiction of postmodern feminism and female solidarity as it is for the late-90s/early-00s cheese factor. Individual episodes rarely reached the heights of those of its immediate peers, but it’s hard for fans either new or old to look back on it with anything less than absolute fondness.
If a reboot can recapture that rare sweet spot, and not misunderstand the show’s main draw, then it could extend Charmed’s legacy even further. Like Buffy it came at a specific moment in time to teach fantasy television that superpowers could be fun and sexy but, whereas Buffy was about growing up, Charmed was concerned with what happens once you have.
It was messy and chaotic, a bit like life, but above all it was about women who loved and supported each other, and the power over your circumstances that love can give you.
This article comes from Den of Geek UK.