'Charmed' Creators Explain "Wish Fulfillment" of Show in Trump Era

Executive producer Jennie Snyder Urman and writers Jessica O'Toole and Amy Rardin discuss literally empowering women in 2018, and reveal some regrets on how they handled telling the original show's stars.
Courtesy of The CW

The pilot for the new Charmed wastes no time in making a case for why 2018 needs a revival of the '90s fan-favorite occult sisterhood.

Right off the bat, The CW's latest title, which premieres tonight, dives into the #MeToo movement, establishing that heroines Mel (Melonie Diaz), Maggie (Madeleine Mantock) and Macy (Sarah Jeffery) attend a university that's been split apart by a sexual assault allegation. As the episode unfurls, more contemporary issues surface: While Mel protests the reinstatement of the accused professor, Macy deals with some casual workplace harassment and Maggie attempts to gain entry to a retrograde sorority. And when the trio learns that they have powers, their guide to this new world of magic, women's studies professor Harry (Rupert Evans), makes a telling pun: "Being a witch is a full pro-choice enterprise," he quips. (Wordplay around consent and "witch hunts" also abounds.)

This explicit take on Trump-era America is totally intentional: Originally envisioned as a '70s prequel set during second-wave feminism, Charmed changed after the 2016 election. "All the issues that we were talking about in the '70s seemed so relevant and so timely, we just felt like we had to talk about it now," writer Amy Rardin says.

This contemporary spin hasn't been without controversy, however, as stars from the '90s series have criticized the reboot and reinterpretation of the original show's feminism since its announcement. In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, executive producer Jennie Snyder Urman and executive producers and writers Jessica O'Toole and Rardin respond to those critiques, reveal other contemporary issues the first season tackles and preview Easter eggs that fans of the old series can expect.

The Charmed reboot was first announced in 2013. When and how did you get on board?

O'Toole: Jennie brought it to us in 2016. She’d been approached to do it by CBS, and she had a really cool idea, which was to do a prequel set in the '70s and really tie the women's movement to witchcraft, so that was a road we went down. And then after the 2016 election, suddenly all of the themes that we had been exploring felt like they would be much more valuable if they were explored in the present day in a different way, so that's how we ended up redeveloping it into the version we have now.

Rardin: We did write an actual pilot of the '70s version, and as we were writing it, it was so strange: All the issues that we were talking about in the '70s seemed so relevant and so timely, we just felt like we had to talk about it now. We were still dealing with the issues 30, 40 years later.

How did you decide to make all the sisters women of color?

Rardin: We felt that in the updated version we wanted to reflect what was happening in 2018, the reality of the world that we live in. We also wanted to tell different stories that hadn’t necessarily been told on television before, so it was very important to us to have an inclusive cast. The network was very supportive and we did have a lead woman of color in the ‘70s version as well.

What was your process for staffing the writers room, given the cultural specificities of leads who are women of color, and in one case, queer?

Rardin: Jessica and I staffed the writers room, and it was very important to us to have an inclusive writers room. We always joke that we have one token straight white dude on our staff, who is a very lovely, open person. But every other person on our staff is a person of color, is part of the LGBTQ community. I feel like it’s important to have an inclusive staff to tell those stories, to make them personal and specific.

Is this the kind of writers room where you're often telling personal stories, or do you take a more distanced approach?

O'Toole: It definitely is a room where everyone shares personal stories. It's a very safe and open room. We even have a little mantra that we repeat at the end of the day about being supportive. Everyone, I think, feels safe in challenging us — we're a couple of white ladies, and we always say, "If we're being clueless white ladies, please tell us, don't be afraid to because we really want to know that."

The pilot dives right into the #MeToo movement. What was the news like at the time when you were writing the episode?

Snyder Urman: We started it in the summer of 2017 and actually wrote the script in the winter. 

O'Toole: A lot of powerful men were dropping like flies at the time we were writing the pilot, I remember. Every day you would check your feed and there would be another name, and you'd be like, “Uh oh.”

Snyder Urman: And it was really a time where you were looking around and you felt a palpable shift in terms of people and voices coming out and starting to be heard, wanting to say something and not accepting the status quo. It really felt like a bubbling up of something that had been needing to come up for a long time, like an earthquake. It was impossible not to include that in a story about three powerful women.

Can you preview some of the other issues that you're going to tackle in the show besides sexual assault and harassment?

Rardin: We’re obviously continuing to talk about gender issues, and will talk about race, female power, what that looks like and how that is perceived and LGBTQ issues, along with dating and sisterhood.

O'Toole: Sexuality, being a woman of color in STEM fields.

Snyder Urman: Power dynamics in relationships. Also: what happens in relationships when one person has more power than the other, or perceived power.

Some original Charmed stars have criticized the show on Twitter and in interviews. How much interaction did you have with the original team while producing this series?

Snyder Urman: We didn’t. The property came to us from CBS and we started to write it. Our interactions really began after the script came out and announcements were made. In retrospect, you wish that we had all had conversations and had reached out. I do, [at least,] only because of all of the feelings that got excavated once that happened. Then you look back and you realize, this was such a huge part of their lives for so long, of course they're feeling like, "Oh my gosh, it's being taken in a direction without me." But hindsight is 20/20. We understand their feelings, and at the same time we want to give these women — who are starring in the reboot and who have really strong voices — an opportunity to be the heroes of the story, and an opportunity to do their version of the show. It’s always tricky when you take a property that has existed and, I can only speak for myself, but I just wasn’t fully aware of all of the deep, emotional ties and the feelings that came out of that — really human feelings. So I would like to do better if there’s better rebooting in my future, who knows.

O'Toole: I think Amy and I would agree. We always intended to be respectful of the original, and we’re also huge fans of the original.

Snyder Urman: That was something we thought about a lot: how to pay homage to the original, how to respect it and not tamper with what they had and the mythology they created. We were really conscious of that, and we talked about it constantly and talked about the fan base. We just didn't expand it from there, and that, I would say, is on us.

Can we expect any Easter eggs for viewers of the original series in this series?

Rardin: In the pilot we’re using a lot of their mythology — we have the Book of Shadows, Whitelighters, we are using their Big Bad and The Source of All Evil. They have such a vast, intricate, interesting mythology: We’re lucky to have that platform to use a springboard for our stories, and we're very grateful for that.

O'Toole: And there'll be a couple of Easter eggs, too.

Snyder Urman: We really wanted to focus on the core of what that show was, which was a love story between three sisters who are there for each other, who support each other and who look after each other before anything else: That is what the series boiled down to in its essence for us. And then we wanted to open it up so that we gave other women the chance to be heroes in the story, and we wanted to make sure that it was open and inclusive in terms of letting new viewers who didn't grow up with Charmed come in, and meet them, and we wanted it to stand on its own, which is a tricky balance, and it's a constantly evolving discussion.

Charmed joins Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in being a '90s, female-centered TV show that is getting rebooted. Why do you think shows about women from the '90s are having a moment right now?

Snyder Urman: Probably because it's shows that we all liked in some formative years.

Rardin: That's a good point, that they were so effective in …

O'Toole: I think in figuring shit out.

Snyder Urman: And they were inspiring to those of us who have grown up watching them, who feel an automatic connection to that. And I think also there's hunger in this world right now for strong women, to see more and more. And then [there's] a little bit of the fantasy of these women having all the power, especially right now. Because we’re just at this horrible moment in our political landscape and in our country's history, everything, it just feels so awful, so there’s a big wish fulfillment element as well. Like, let's change things up.

What is your personal relationship to Charmed?

Snyder Urman: For me, it’s the wish fulfillment of magical powers and being able to change things. Like if I could stop time and think for a second before I say something — a lot of times I wish for that. And the wish fulfillment of the sisterhood: I always had really close girlfriends, and I always wanted sisters but didn't have them, so for me that relationship is everything I love about the show.

O'Toole: I would second that; I think also the idea of being that fearless when confronted with things like the apocalypse on top of an emotional apocalypse [hit me]. The idea of how the sisters can be there for each other to face these things without fear, that’s something we all need right now. And it’s not always easy for me to be like that, so it’s something that I like exploring on the show and thinking about.

Rardin: For me, I think it would be empowerment. I love seeing these three strong women kick ass every week, getting to talk about these women and also getting to work with strong women. It’s so wonderful and very fulfilling in this climate to be supported by Jennie, to get to work with Jessica every day and to have that empowerment in our work life.