Place: Costume Department, Spelling Television Offices. Scene: The weekly planning meeting for Charmed. “Okay, last week Cole wore the tank top and Leo went shirtless. Phoebe wore the leather miniskirt, Prue was in the halter top, and Piper wore the backless summer dress. So this week, Cole—shirtless, Leo in the tank top, Phoebe gets the halter top, Prue will be in the summer dress, and Piper wears the miniskirt. Meeting adjourned.”
The above might lead you to believe that these poor people are working with the smallest budget in the industry. In reality, however, the costuming decisions on Charmed are dictated by the WB’s philosophy of television—hire the most bodacious young babes and mouth-watering beefcake, dress them in the skimpiest clothing allowable, and the people will watch. For Charmed, the babes are Shannen Doherty (as Prue), Holly Marie Combs (Piper), and Alyssa Milano (Phoebe), who portray the Halliwell sisters, three contemporary witches destined to save humanity. The beefcake comes courtesy of Brian Krause (Leo) and Julian McMahon (Balthazar and his alterego, Cole), as the sisters’ otherworldly boyfriends. Fortunately, this cast has genuine talent. While not as witty or compelling as the WB’s Buffy or Angel, Charmed is still more enjoyable than most shows in the good vs evil genre, in large part because of the strength of the performers.
Like most heroes in this genre, the Halliwell sisters haven’t always known their fate is to save mankind. And they haven’t always been friendly with one another. With both parents gone (mom is long dead, dad hit the road years ago), much of the parenting fell to the eldest, the pragmatic Prue, who disapproved of youngest sister Phoebe’s Bohemian lifestyle in New York City. Caught in the middle, and playing the role of compassionate mediator between her two sisters, is Piper. All hell breaks loose when Phoebe returns to the family home in San Francisco in the first episode. Seeking a sense of refuge in her mother’s belongings, Phoebe stumbles across the Book of Shadows, sort of a witches’ handbook. Reading the book’s first incantation aloud, Phoebe inadvertently activates the women’s powers, and before you can say, “Shazzam,” Prue is able to move objects with her mind, Piper can freeze time, and Phoebe starts having visions of the future. Initially, the girls are not too thrilled to learn they are destined to become the most powerful witches ever. It’s a lot of responsibility, and it really puts a damper on a girl’s social life, as Piper reveals to Phoebe and Prue, following her first night with a new boyfriend:
Phoebe: You, Leo, last night: dish!
Piper: Um, well, it was nice. It was… well, it was wonderful. We just had a few problems
Prue: What problems?
Piper: Well, it’s been a while since, you know, I… I was a little nervous, and I kinda kept freezing him.
Prue: Piper, you didn’t?
Piper: I didn’t mean to… the first time.
Luckily, the women have help adjusting to their new powers and the duties of demon-killing. They are aided by their “White Lighter,” Leo, an immortal who serves as intermediary between the sisters and the mysterious and unseen Good Powers That Be. Since Leo is also Piper’s fiance, he has a vested interest in keeping the trio safe. As a result of Leo’s information from above and the girl’s growing powers, Phoebe can now levitate and Prue is able to “astral project” (that is, be in two places at one time), and the four are now searching out and destroying the myriad of demons that seem to be plaguing San Francisco. The plot is hardly original, borrowing freely from a variety of sources, everything from the Salem Witch Trials to 1998’s Practical Magic. However, the writers frequently place the sisters in humorous and unique situations, such as when Pru and Phoebe began acting like giddy children after being sprinkled with fairy dust. These unexpected turns in stock storylines make the weekly war on evil more interesting than one might expect.
After three seasons of battling a chain of demons who were quick to come and go, the sisters now face the demon Balthazar—who takes the human form of Assistant District Attorney Cole Hayden—who was sent by the Triad, the Evil Powers That Be, to destroy the witches, who have become a nuisance, what with all their killing of the Triad’s minions. However, Balthazar is unable to complete his mission when his human half, Cole, falls for Phoebe. Phoebe returns Cole’s affections, and, although distraught to learn her greatest love is also her greatest enemy, betrays her sisters by helping her lover fake his own demise. It all sounds like a supernatural soap opera, but Charmed often forgoes melodrama in favor of a keen examination of sisterhood. Although each episode pits the trio against some nasty force that viewers know will be justly vanquished, the writers tend to explore the sibling dynamics to keep the show from growing redundant. Like most sisters, the Halliwells quarrel, giggle, share secrets, give each other love advice, and reminisce about the carefree days of their youth. Witchcraft, their biggest secret, is merely the device to unify the strained family, and as the sisters learn how to deal with their new powers and with each other.
That the sisterly relationship is so believable is a credit to Doherty, Combs, and Milano. Each received her television training in a different genre—Doherty on the prime time soap Beverly Hills 90210, Combs on the acclaimed small-town drama Picket Fences, and Milano on the family sitcom Who’s the Boss?; consequently, each brings different strengths to the ensemble. Doherty still has the hard edge she showed in earlier performances, but has matured from a bitchy teenager into an assertive, confident woman. Providing a lighter touch is Milano, whose comic training is ideal for her carefree character. The most enjoyable to watch is Combs. Her Piper is a role model of compassion, and Combs’ dramatic training allows her to present the uneasiness the women feel with their new roles. The three complement one another nicely, which helps keep the sisters from being stagnant, like many of television’s supernatural heroes (such as those on Sci-Fi Channel’s Invisible Man and the now defunct Hercules). It is the opportunity to watch three dynamic characters juggle work, school, relationships, and the daily responsibilities of domestic life on top of saving humankind that brings viewers back, not the chance to see good overcome evil repeatedly.
It’s probably best that the show’s focus is sisterhood, considering its slight grasp of the principles of witchcraft and Wicca. For example, in an attempt to explain Wicca, Phoebe states, “A good witch follows the Wiccan rede: ‘An it harm none, do what ye will.’ A bad witch or warlock has but one goal: to kill good witches and retain their powers.” For those unfamiliar with Wicca, let me clarify: Wicca’s governing principle is indeed that no harm should ever result from a practitioner’s actions. However, Wiccans reject the idea of a “bad witch” or warlock. According to Wiccans, all acts, whether good or evil in intent, are returned upon the practitioner three-fold. Therefore, to be a “bad witch,” killing and stealing, would be a foolish and self-destructive choice. Such inaccuracies reinforce misperceptions and stereotypes that Wicca is a fringe cult for lunatics and malcontents. This problem is heightened by the fact that most human Wiccan practitioners who show up on Charmed are presented as ineffective and inconsequential, as if to imply that only the Halliwell sisters are justified in their beliefs.
Equally distressing is the show’s lack of diversity. One would think that, living in San Francisco, the Halliwells would occasionally encounter gay men and women, African Americans, Asians, or Latinos. In Charmed‘s version of the city, the only minority in town is Inspector Darrell Morris (Dorian Gregory), an African American, who appears on the show sporadically. Morris seems to exist only to serve the needs of the leads, as his presence is required only to keep the sisters out of jail on the infrequent occasions that the police investigate the mayhem the demons initiate.
It may seem inconsistent to request that a series based on supernatural principles be more realistic. However, placing the sisters in an environment that more closely resembles the “real world” would emphasize the conflict the women feel about living in two separate realities, the human plane and the ethereal world of demons and witches. The characters often discuss the disruptive consequences of being Chosen Ones. After a particularly rough morning, Phoebe says, “Check my to-do list. It says bank, dry cleaners, pedicure. No where on the list does it say kickbox a beast. Just walking along, minding my own business and wham! It was like a random attack, a demonic drive-by.” Despite such repeated declarations of the sisters’ frustrations, the series has yet to explore fully their sense of disharmony. And this could be achieved if the human plane was more believable. For instance, when the Halliwells explain to Inspector Morris that they were able to kill a potential assassin because they are witches, his reaction is not anything along the lines of “You’re what? Witches? Yeah, right, and I’m the Wizard of Oz.” Rather, he simply shrugs his shoulders, says, “Oh,” then continues his investigation as though this is not only a logical explanation, but also a common one.
Both worlds the sisters inhabit are fantasies, and new viewers will have to suspend their belief to accept both a supernatural world filled with demons, spirits, and witches, and an earthly world void of color, diversity, and realistic humans. As long as they can accept these two worlds and keep their attention focused on the playful and convincing interactions among the five leads, viewers will enjoy the show. Well-choreographed action sequences, respectable acting, interesting primary characters, and, yes, delicious eye-candy in revealing costumes, will keep Charmed from being vanquished any time soon.