Charmed has never quite measured up to Buffy‘s sublimity. But like other Aaron Spelling creations, it is soapy, ironic, and festive. It’s also a sci fi-fantasy inquiry into female gender roles, pondering women’s agency and their twin capacities for kicking ass and playing sex objects.
It’s the juxtaposition of epic storylines (the never-ending struggle between good and evil) with typical domestic concerns (sibling rivalry, absent parents, love troubles) that speaks to the contradictions in real women’s lives. Can you juggle family and career? Can you really have it all? Do you have to be superwoman to do it? Or a witch?
Season Four, now out on an extras-less DVD, opens with sisters Piper (Holly Marie Combs) and Phoebe (Alyssa Milano) grieving the death of their older sister Prue (Shannon Doherty, fired from the show). They just wanna be normal gals, but they can’t escape their world-saving mission: the three sisters are the Charmed Ones, powerful witches assigned to save Innocents and fight demons. Prue, they say, died during one of their on-going fights with demons, the foot soldiers of this devilish dude named the Source. The Source of All Evil, that is. (Maybe it’s Aaron Spelling.)
The struggle with the Source keeps the sisters occupied throughout the fourth season. But the real dramatic firepower comes in two recurring themes: forbidden love (always a crowd favorite) and internal psychological struggles over loyalty. Both help us bring the epic down to eye level, to see the impact of universe-sized brawls on the witches’ daily lives.
The most poignant plotline, hitting both themes, is the doomed love between Phoebe and her half-demon beau, Cole (Julian McMahan). Cole has to choose between being an angel or a devil on a daily basis. He’s at war with himself, and only Phoebe’s love draws him to the good side. The show wrings genuine emotion from their travails: they marry but he’s soon possessed by the Source and makes Phoebe turn to dark magic. She shakes it off and has to vanquish him and their unborn child (also possessed by the Source). Cole wanders the Wasteland (where vanquished demons go) pining for her. He wants her to bring him back, but she doesn’t want to use dark magic again, summing up their predicament, “Sometimes love isn’t enough.” Trite, but accurate.
Good Cole is the hunky human, bad Cole the red-faced devil (his switching back and forth during conversations with Phoebe conveys his intricate suffering). Unfortunately, the series also uses this visual trick to invoke a problematic trope when it conflates sex and violence (Cole embraces Phoebe, then suddenly he’s the demon Balthazar and tries to kill her). Phoebe’s story is similarly dualistic. Though she whines tediously about wanting her domestic dreams realized, she is quite winning when she ponders the sacrifices it takes to save the world.
Another illicit passion strikes Piper and her Whitelighter Leo (Brian Krause), angelic protector of witches. Though this bodyguard is not supposed to get involved with the hottie hope of the world, they fall in love and break tons of taboos in the process. In Season Three, they married and Leo saved her from death. Season Four finds them navigating the equally momentous shoals of domesticity; again, this provides engaging, often funny material (Piper tells Leo to go thwart demons in the same tone she uses to order him around the house). But this plotline has less payoff. When these kids buck the taboos of the Elders, it’s like they’re trying to aggravate their parents.
We get more effective psychological mileage out of a third key story arc, about sisterhood. The witches need three sisters to do their magic. The women and their bond form the core, the men are always peripheral. With oldest sis Prue gone, the series introduces Paige (Rose McGowan). While the addition is contrived and clunky, the series at least uses it to consider adoption and the bonds between stepsiblings. The sisters learn new loyalty by accepting a new family member into their circle.
Paige’s backstory conveniently parallels what the girls are going through now. Back in the day, their mom rebelliously married a human (their father), then divorced him. Her subsequent relationship with her Whitelighter produced a child, Paige, whom they left on a church step to be adopted. When Paige pops up, the power of three is restored, the franchise ensured. And the addition of McGowan is welcome, since she has major goth cred as Marilyn Manson’s former flame. She pouts and wears black and glowers at the bad guys.
The series’ contemplation of women’s agency plays it both ways, seriously and dismissively. Its dramedic tone reflects ambivalence regarding girl power. The breezy tone often leads us down the garden path to triteness. A distraught Piper, missing Prue, wails, “I don’t understand why magic can’t fix this.” She expresses her pain and anger over the limits of human and witch agency, but it’s jokey. Indeed, Phoebe declares, “Prue will never forgive us if we look bad at her funeral.”
The show explores some big questions (free will, good versus evil, who is running the universe) within a goofy New Age framework (“There’s always a reason for everything,” “Don’t fight your destiny,” and “Blessed be”). And it offers girls working in multiple spheres: they go out to save the world each day, but they’re still home in time to argue with their sisters at the dinner table.