a review by Nalini Haynes
This is the final in my series of reviews of Charmed, the TV series that ran from 1998 to 2006 (according to IMDB).
If you’ve read my previous reviews, you will have noticed that I feel somewhat lukewarm about this series. It focuses on three sisters, Paige, Piper and Pheobe, who are all chosen or ‘Charmed Ones’, witches with more-than-Wiccan powers who fight evil demons, warlocks or other ‘non-human’ creatures. The sisters are a bit like Charlie’s Angels without the kick-ass action scenes. And less of the detecting. And more of the relationship issues.
The end of season 6 dragged so much for me, I almost gave up. Almost. Season seven started really well, with a series of episodes that explore feminist issues like breastfeeding in public, women working, the work/life balance and more. One of these episodes in particular, titled ‘Bigger naked breasts,’ was clearly the inspiration for the Tights & Tiaras talk of the same name.
Unfortunately, about a third of the way through the season, the quality of writing went back down to two or three stars for most episodes with stories that had me yelling, ‘But WHY?’ at the screen because PUPPETMASTER or because OBVIOUS PLOT DEVICE TO EXTEND STORY TO 45 MINUTES.
Season 7 introduced a female elder and it may have been the first season to introduce an African American elder too. This changed the dynamics of the witch/elder relationship significantly: it was no longer the all-powerful guys giving orders and not getting off their backsides. The conflict felt more political and more equitable.
Season 7 came to a good finish: when I say ‘good’ I mean it was a satisfying way to end the series. Then season 8 started. Kaley Cuoco (Penny from Big Bang Theory) joins the team as Billie Jenkins, a college student. Billie first appears with a flourish that screamed ‘DOCTOR’S NEW COMPANION,’ so the ‘surprise’ wasn’t. Billie’s childhood trauma was first revealed as a demon attack with later revelations that her sister was snatched from their bedroom at night. Billie obsesses about tracking down her sister, with no-one outright challenging her about putting her present friends at risk by neglecting them to solve a 15 year old mystery.
Relationships evolve, often rather quickly as it’s obvious the Charmed cast are going to live happily ever after, except for the bad guys. The journey to get to the finish annoyed me considerably at times. Yes, I think Billy Zane is very pleasant eye candy, but if he’s pursuing Pheobe and checking out other women in front of her? UGH. Not. Sexy. And the whole ‘you can’t go weeks without sex, it means you’ve given up on love, can’t do that’ thing… AAARRRGGGHHH. The final wrap-up was pretty quick considering the drawn-out melodramas of relationships through the series; this was a plus in my opinion. I like a happy ending and I don’t like melodrama. If characters are so unstable in their relationships that they’re screwing one another but indecisive about whether or not they LIKE one another? Move on. Seriously. And get a vibrator: much less heartbreak. And no STDs.
Season 8 provided a pleasant if unsurprising conclusion to a three star series.
Then I watched Anita Sarkeesian’s Damsels in Distress part one.
My head went into a spin, reordering my thoughts on this subject.
All the way through the eight seasons of Charmed I was frustrated because I compared Charmed to Babylon 5, Buffy and Firefly. I wanted quality storytelling and at least one kick-ass character like Ivanova, Delenn, Willow, Kaylee or Zoe. Yet even B5 was up and down in its writing: B5 didn’t really kick off until second season when the story arc started to be put into play more effectively. I was unfair to Charmed, judging it against the best parts of the best series instead of judging it against its contemporaries.
Charmed does not fall back on the damsel in distress trope. Sure, there are times when women, even the superpowered Charmed Ones, need rescuing, but it’s usually the women doing the rescuing. They’re like, ‘Sweetie, you stay at home and look after the kids, I have to go and save the world.’ In the context of Anita Sarkeesian’s series, Charmed is FUCKING AWESOME.
Once Anita Sarkeesian gave me a mental smack upside the head I came to appreciate Charmed for what it is: a surprisingly feminist series featuring aspirational characters (well, aspirational for some but not for me). The writing is equivalent to a lot of the episodes of Stargate: Atlantis; some stories are entertaining, others have lots of heart, while many others have plot-holes that inspire me to mimic Statler and Waldorf but with less jokes. (Did I mention that my husband is patient? Well, fairly patient. Sometimes he hits pause so I can get it out of my system.)
Charmed was ahead of its time in that it moved past the Damsel in Distress trope, focusing instead on three powerful women whose mission was to save the world while the men stayed at home, a bit like Buffy with the Elders or Watchers letting the wimminz do to the work while the dudes criticised from on high, although this dynamic was changed with the introduction of a female elder in Charmed season 7. In terms of a US TV series, Charmed writing is comparable to a lot of stuff that has been released recently. These days the best US TV series are from HBO, Showtime, FX and AMC: while not comparable with those series, Charmed will still be a favourite of people who are enthusiastic about other, more mainstream TV such as Stargate and possibly 4400.