'Charmed': TV Review

Some potential, but not quite ready to put a spell on you.
10/14/2018

The Charmed Ones are back with three new sisters and a strong feminist message; if only their new CW show were more magical or exciting.

There will be plenty of reviews comparing and contrasting The CW's new take on Charmed to the original WB series, celebrating or taking umbrage at every change. Heaven knows there will be plenty such reviews and heaven knows I've written such reviews about other recent remakes and reboots. This, however, will not be that kind of review.

Fans of Pru and Piper and Phoebe are already annoyed by the CW version, and there's nothing I could say that would suddenly alleviate their prejudged trepidation/prejudice anyway.

What I can say is that The CW's Charmed is a remake with a very clear perspective that puts it in the middle of conversations about the #MeToo moment. It's an unabashedly feminist witching allegory that gets an extra shiver of recognition from the recent Kavanaugh circus and feels prepared to engage, possibly in a clever way, in a conversation that's worth having, especially for young women. The pilot is also plagued by unsurprising twists, largely nondescript performances and some comically cornball special effects. I very much like the way Charmed sees itself and I hope it can become that show, even if it isn't there yet.

Developed for The CW by Jessica O'Toole and Amy Rardin with Jane the Virgin creator Jennie Snyder Urman, Charmed is the story of sisters Mel (Melonie Diaz) and Maggie (Sarah Jeffery). Mel is an angry graduate student in a relationship with a local detective (Ellen Tamaki). Maggie is younger, bubblier and eager to join a sorority. When their mother, a women's studies professor at a generic university, dies under shady circumstances, the girls are grief-stricken and looking for answers, a process that takes an unexpected detour when Macy (Madeleine Mantock) arrives saying that she's their half-sister and when all three women start exhibiting magical powers. Very swiftly, Harry (Rupert Evans) shows up and tells the sisters that they're the Charmed Ones, powerful witches with the ability to stave off the end of the world.

If you're not going to be amused that the election of Donald Trump is the first part of a three-step process presaging the apocalypse, you're not going to be amused by much of anything on a show that is eagerly, gleefully and stridently progressive. With Mel's own political advocacy leading the way, Charmed is the sort of show that builds a key dialogue callback around definitions of consent, cracks wise about Roxane Gay's Twitter feed and twists the modern conventional use of "witch hunt" in predictably fun ways. Creators O'Toole and Rardin cut their teeth on the late, great Greek, and it's no surprise that Maggie's panhellenic aspirations lead to a few nice twists on sorority sisterhood versus the sort of literal sisterhood that makes their mother declare, "You're better together. Your differences are your strengths. And nothing is stronger than your sisterhood."

The things Charmed is trying to say are a worthwhile approach to the genre, though it wouldn't hurt to blend the subtext in with the text a tiny bit more. Most people will get what the show is saying with only 75 percent of the sweaty effort, while it's notable or odd that for all of the emphasized and underlined feminism, the inclusive casting of the sisters has yet to add anything.

The CW's regular in-house director Brad Silberling's approach to the series' supernatural elements can be generously described as "limited" or less generously described as "really cheap looking." There are plenty of ways the show could have made its budgetary frugality into a strength, ways that aren't reflected in the flat depictions of Macy and Mel's powers (Maggie's gift, the ability to read thoughts, thankfully requires nothing in particular) or the sort of cheesy crows-and-fog effects that call to mind the pilot for The Vampire Diaries, a show that had to go to great effort to recover from its early episodes. There's a one-dimensional flatness to the production design and filming of the sisters' house and to their school, which carries over a little into the characters, who are defined in terms of basically one personality trait apiece.

Macy, ever spurting science jargon, is the most wooden of the characters; Mel the closest to fully realized. Chained to a boring love interest (Charlie Gillespie's Brian), but paired with my favorite pilot supporting character (Natalie Hall's truly funny sorority queen nightmare Lucy) is more of a mixed bag. After only one episode, I really can't tell if Evans' Harry has been written to be intentionally annoying and unlikable or if there was a very bad misjudgment somewhere, but it's possible the answer is the former since it wouldn't fit this show's empowering ideology to make this "Whitelighter" too appealing. It didn't take long for me to be wishing these sisters were actually doing it for themselves.

Charmed wants to be light and bubbly, but there's a weight that comes from the campus protests and he said/she said media reports when set against the current news cycle. Already between my first viewing of the pilot in July and a second pre-review watch, without the changing of a single word, the show's message felt even more vital (and the special effects were somewhat improved too, though that was actually a change). Figuring out how to make Mel, Maggie and Macy more fully inhabited characters and tapping better into their witchy powers and their big, mythology-driven mission is the next step that made me wish I'd been able to watch a couple more episodes. It's rare to see a show of this type that puts so much effort into nailing down the subtext only to leave the text and its execution so frequently limp.

Cast: Melonie Diaz, Sarah Jeffery, Madeleine Mantock, Ser'Darius Blain, Ellen Tamaki, Rupert Evans, Nick Hargrove
Developed by: Jessica O'Toole, Amy Rardin and Jennie Snyder Urman
Premieres: Sunday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (The CW)