The two-hour season premiere of the WB’s foxy witch-babe series Charmed, with back-to-back episodes drearily titled “Charmed Again (1)” and “Charmed Again (2),” lacks the edge and the campiness of the show’s first three seasons. Part of this is certainly due to the loss of the notoriously mercurial Shannen Doherty, who portrayed Prue Halliwell, the eldest of the three sisters who constitute “The Charmed Ones”—a trio of witches with unprecedented powers, strongest when they work together. At the end of last season, Prue met an untimely death at the hands of a cheesy, heavy-metal-roadie-looking demon. In real life, Doherty decided to leave the Aaron Spelling series under uncertain circumstances, similar to her departure from Spelling’s long-running teen soap opera, Beverly Hills, 90210.
If Spelling history repeats itself, then Charmed seems at risk of suffering the same protracted decline into insipidity as the post-Shannen 90210. What might save us from this suffering, though, is that Charmed lacks the former series’ large cult following, which is what kept 90210 hanging on for an excruciating six years after Doherty jumped ship.
There is some hope, though, that Charmed might regain something of its previous (albeit limited) success. It is possible to imagine that the addition of Rose McGowan to the Charmed cast will more than make up for Doherty’s loss. A pleasure to watch on the big screen, in Doom Generation and Jawbreaker, McGowan comes to the series in the role of Paige Halliwell, the previously unknown, long-lost half-sister of Prue, Piper (Holly Marie Combs), and Pheobe (Alyssa Milano).
But not only is Paige a witch (as the sisters share a mother), she’s also half-“Whitelighter”; basically she’s part guardian angel. Paige is the product of an illicit affair between the witch Patty Halliwell (Finola Hughes) and her spiritual protector, or Whitelighter. Seems a rather elaborate set-up for Paige, you say? Well, it’s the sort of melodrama at which Spelling excels, and it only gets better (or worse, depending on your sympathies). As an infant, Paige was given to the care of a kindly nun (Wendy Phillips), who promised to place her in a loving family. She had to be kept secret, you see, so that mom and dad wouldn’t be punished (by whom is never fully explained). More importantly, Paige had to be hidden away so that the “full” Halliwell sisters could retain their birthright as the three Charmed Ones (three, you know, is a magic number). Upon Prue’s death, Paige is suddenly and awkwardly thrust into the supernatural spotlight, to occupy the recently vacated third seat in the triangle, a position she is reluctant to take.
Similarly, McGowan has been thrown into a role and a series about which she seems, at best, hesitant. As Paige, McGowan seems stifled and reticent, perhaps as if she’s not quite sure what she’s supposed to be doing—and so, in her performances so far, she’s just laid low, and made no waves or sudden movements. More to the point, Rose is surely wondering just how she, a sometime girlfriend of Marilyn Manson with Goth credentials to rival Angelina Jolie’s, has ended up in Aaron Spelling’s carefully calculated world of mischief. Granted, this is all gleaned only from McGowan’s first episode, in which she’s supposed to be confused about her identity and her relationship to the Halliwells. We can only hope that as the season continues, Paige will be permitted to develop in ways that will allow McGowan’s inner indie-girl to shine.
Most distressing about the new season of Charmed are the drastic changes in the show’s gender/proto-feminist politics. While frequent costume changes and nipple-revealing tight shirts continue to be a rather sexist hold-over from the Doherty days, in the post-Shannen Charmed not only is the control-freak Prue gone, but so too is the show’s girl-power intensity. Not that Charmed was ever that cerebrally challenging—but it was one of few television representations about a loving family of women who seek and enjoy romantic relationships, but don’t dwell on such things above all else (see Ally McBeal, for an example of such dwelling).
In its new incarnation, Charmed has rather suddenly changed from a show about three cute and powerful girls who are even stronger when unified, to one about three young women desperately in search of “good” men, even as their powers continually get in the way. Prue’s death has instigated a lot of coffee-talk among the sisters about all that they must do to maintain healthy relationships. As a result, Charmed has moved away from being an ass-kicking, girls rule supernatural dramedy (basically a Buffy wannabe) and towards becoming just another whiny relationship show, like ABC’s Once and Again.
Much of the fourth season’s slow start can be attributed to this new touchy-feely direction. The main focus of the show is no longer female empowerment through bonding and sisterhood (although that does remain an element, but to a much lesser extent than before), but girls helping each other with their boyfriend problems. The Halliwell girls, it seems, are now more interested in rationalizing to themselves and to one another why they are with the guys they’re dating (or marrying, in the case of Piper), than in thinking about ways to rid the world of evil. In stereotypically sexist logic, the sisters spend vast amounts of time fretting over whether a career or a boyfriend is more important (being a good witch is such a dangerous and time-consuming vocation that these two options are mutually exclusive). Does it always have to come down to choosing one over the other? And why are these the only possibilities? What about those of us who want both? Or neither?
While it is certainly important that we women consider our needs—emotional, sexual, whatever—making boy troubles central to the series takes away from some of the fun of the show. Previously, while boys seemed cute and lovable, and sometimes very dangerous, they were really just vehicles for a more sisterly, girlie-power narrative of female independence. Whether the addition of Paige to the story and Rose to the cast can resurrect the show from its fresh, whiny “chick show” grave should be apparent in the next few weeks. I, for one, have faith in Ms. McGowan: if anyone can kick Charmed‘s ass back into shape, she can.