“That’s exactly what we’re going to do Billie; we’re going to kill.”
Largely because of its Aaron Spelling-pedigree, Charmed rarely got notice for, more often than not, being smarter and more entertaining than much of its competition. It never got the critical nods or achieved the cult status of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but Charmed had plenty to offer and was often much better than it needed to be.
The show slipped markedly in season seven, a slide that continues to its logical conclusion here. It abandons the elements — smart casting (a pre-Fantastic Four, pre-Nip/ Tuck Julian McMahon, the even trade of Shannon Doherty for Rose McGowan, Billy Drago as Barbas), and an attention to relationship drama that was smarter and more nuanced than it ever received credit for — that helped previous seasons rise above the low-brow trimmings of lukewarm T&A and lightweight new ageisms that should have sunk the show years ago, but instead made it surprisingly enjoyable and engaging.
Season Eight introduces Kaley Cuoco as Billie, a young witch that the Halliwell sisters (Combs, Milano, and McGowan) mentor and who is the catalyst for a battle that’s supposed to have the potential to destroy the world. She’s consistently painful to watch and her awkward presence and acting call attention to the show’s weaknesses when in the past, the cast was able to distract from them (Drew Fuller, who provided a similar presence in the previous season, returns for a handful of episodes).
She never fits in and the mid-season introduction of Christy (Marnette Patterson), the sister who helps bring about the season-ending battle, only compounds the problems. Patterson huffs and puffs through her on-camera time and, when combined with Cuoco’s inability to generate any kind of life with her character, leaves you wondering with each episode why the main actresses so noticeably removed themselves from the show (both Combs and Milano are producers on the series). The family drama that frames the sister’s backstory (Christy was kidnapped by demons as a child and was presumed dead by her parents until Billie and the Halliwell sisters rescue her) generates none of the interest that the show’s other defining relationships created in past seasons.
That the other major relationships that draw focus come off as equally forced leaves an unfillable hole. What’s left are B-movie effects and acting and middle-brow attempts at pop culture parody, from Paige’s involvement in a Harry Potter-ish school of magic to the individual episode titles (“Kill Billie”, “Run, Piper, Run”, “Desperate Housewitches”, “The Torn Identity”, “Repo Manor”), that in the past were endearingly ineffective but here only feel lazy. It all only serves to emphasize what made past seasons work.
Rose McGowan, who replaced Shannen Doherty after Season Three, was clearly smarter than the material but never seemed to figure out exactly how to approach it. It never seemed to matter but here, settling in on a screwball approach to the comedy and a misplaced seriousness for the drama, she never fully meshes and her awkward style calls attention to itself. Ditto for Milano’s hokey earnestness.
But there is a moment, midway through, when the show’s most reliable characters, Piper (Combs) and her husband, Leo (Brian Krause), give voice to the frustrations at the heart of their marriage. Leo, a former Elder who gave up his supernatural status to stay on Earth, can’t get comfortable as a mortal married to an all-powerful witch. Piper, struggling with her own conflicted emotions as well as with two children brimming with their own powers, refuses to be pulled into her husband’s issues. It provides the only moments of genuine emotion and it comes as such a shock that when the thread is abandoned almost as quickly as it began, it saps the life from the remaining episodes.
You’re left with the two blonds battling the three brunettes for, of course, the fate of mankind (it seems that in every season, the world is hanging in the balance for some reason or another). Things explode and people die, but it’s unlikely that anyone other than diehards will find much to be interested in. The final episode manages a brief respite and sends the show out on small upswing. But by the end, Charmed, which had consistently wrung life out of otherwise mundane material, had willfully lost sight of exactly what it was that kept the moving parts interesting and its final season falls victim to all of the Spelling-style stereotypes past seasons managed to both embrace and overcome.