Charmed: Season One

"A toast to the Power of Three, whether we like it or not."

It's strange looking back on the series Charmed used to be. There's such a stark difference between the fun, family-centric early episodes, and the trashy, offensive later ones. Despite the questionable dialogue, woeful guest stars, and plotting blunders that became signature for the series post Season Four, Charmed was often home to some sharply written family drama, enthralling mythology, and an incredibly likable core cast. This all fell apart long before the doors of Halliwell manor closed for the final time in 2006, but nearly two decades later I still find myself attached to these three imperfect, yet strong women who are thrown headfirst into this wacky world of witches, demons and bad leather get-ups. Spoilers ahead!

In Season One, Charmed faces the same growing pains that a lot of similar high concept dramas do when they start out, struggling to get the mix of fantastical ingredients just right. Though series opener 'Something Wicca This Way Comes' is a solid and compelling hour, episodes like 'Thank You For Not Morphing', and series low 'The Wedding From Hell', serve as lessons learned for the writing team, with the latter episode in particular feeling like some sort of unintentional parody of the series Charmed was trying to be. Think 'I Robot, You Jane' from Buffy's debut season; the general concept of the series is solid, but elements chosen for a particular episode just don't work the same way they did on paper. Even the first antagonists the girls face seem to be ripped right out of some trashy straight-to-video horror film, and the likes of recurring villains Rex and Hannah feel like more of a wasted opportunity rather than a taste of what the larger big bads in this universe have got in store for the Halliwells.

In the face of some questionable choices elsewhere, the series is forced into relying on the strength of the three leads, something that's immediately evident from the outset. The Halliwells are all well-crafted, relatable characters, with the appeal of each sister buoyed by the charisma and talent of the three lead performers. Prue may be a little stiff initially, but Shannen Doherty's star power comes off in spades even in the drabbest of scenes; Alyssa is the perfect choice for the fun-loving/work-hating youngest sibling, filling Phoebe with endless charm and wide-eyed optimism; and Holly is similarly likable, though Piper's signature surliness doesn't get to come out and play until her first "centric" episode, 'The Wendigo'.

The supporting characters aren't nearly as appealing, though lack of choice feels like a huge factor where that's concerned. Prue's ex, Andy, who just so happens to be a SFPD Detective, serves as a solid love interest for Prue, and temporary foil for the sisters, though at times his presence feels clumsily written in. He's killed in the crossfire of a Halliwell/Demon battle at the close of the season, something that, while sad for Prue, is somewhat of a relief given how repetitive his role in the show was getting. Andy's partner, Darryl Morris, feels like he's there (and I hate to say this) to tick a box in terms of cast diversity, because as a character in his own right he's fairly vacuous. Andy's death gives him the chance to step into a more prominent role in Season Two, but he has very little to do this year. Leo is only a recurring character here, though it's quite obvious that he will be sticking around following his reveal as the sisters' whitelighter – a sort of guardian angel for witches. He's got charm, for sure, though he fails to really stand out as much as you would expect given how heavily featured he ends up becoming later on in the series.

The show is admittedly clunky in a lot of the early episodes, but by the time the season reaches the halfway mark it starts to hit its stride. 'That '70s Episode' is the pinnacle of Charmed's debut season, pairing the rich history of the Halliwell family with the dynamic relationship between the three leads, as the girls travel back in time and meet their late mother and younger selves. 'Deja Vu All Over Again' also plays with the time-travelling element, resulting in the first sucker punch of the series; Andy's death. It's a twist that ups the stakes and leads to some wonderful character work in the following season. 'Out of Sight', another highlight, is the perfect blend of the real world threats the girls face (an overly nosy reporter) and the more sinister otherworldly ones (the Grimlocks). The antagonists greatly improve in the second half as well, culminating in a surprising but wonderful guest spot from David Carradine as time master Tempus in the season finale.

The confidence of the latter episodes leads into a stronger sophomore season, but the first year always felt like the purest representation of the show's original mantra: "three sisters who happen to be witches, not three witches who happen to be sisters". This is especially true of how wonderfully the sibling drama is played from the beginning. With a complicated history already in place thanks to Prue's distrust of Phoebe and her supposed role in Prue's breakup with her "chardonnay-slugging" fiance Roger, there's a well of drama ready to be bled dry the second Phoebe walks into the manor in the first episode. Piper's role as the middle sister holds remarkably true, as she spends a lot of her time playing referee between Prue and Phoebe, with the youngest sibling's proclivity for a more carefree lifestyle driving the older, more sensible sister crazy. Almost every episode is deeply rooted in the sisters' relationship, with their bond growing tighter the stronger their magic gets. It's a great concept that is, at least in these early episodes, executed beautifully.

Potions and Notions

The casting of the Halliwell women remains impeccable. Finola Hughes and Jennifer Rhodes were so great as the girls' mother Patty, and their Grams, Penny; it's no wonder they came back in many different instances throughout the show's eight years.

I always get a kick out of Rebecca Balding's appearance as Aunt Jackie in 'The Fourth Sister', knowing about her role as Elise later on in the series. Hurray for double casting!

Speaking of casting blunders; I wasn't a huge fan of the original version of Victor Halliwell (later re-named Bennett). Thankfully this incarnation is retconned further down the line.

Spells and Chants

Piper: "Don't tell me you spent the night in a conical hat flying around the neighbourhood on a broomstick."

Piper: "Don't put me in the middle."
Prue: "I'm not, you were born in the middle."

Phoebe: "We're the Charmed Ones, Prue, not the Doomed Ones."

Prue: "Some of us have a job."
Phoebe: "Some of us have fun."
Piper: "And some of us are having a really bad hair day."

Grams: "What was the name of my husband?"
Prue: "Which husband?"

Prue: "We do good things together, helps offset the bad things."

Best Episode: That '70s Episode.

Honorable Mentions: Something Wicca This Way Comes, The Wendigo, Is There a Woogy in the House?, Out of Sight, Deja Vu All Over Again.

Worst Episode: The Wedding From Hell.

With strong characterization at its heart, Charmed's debut season is a wonderful, if slightly uneven start to the Halliwells’ journey.

7 out of 10 Power of Three spells.

7 comments:

sunbunny said...

I like The Wedding from Hell, thank you very much. Or at least I think I do. It's been so long since I've seen the series...

Phoebe's season one hair makes me sad.

Panda said...

Oh no, it’s aged so horribly. Those she demons, that dreadful love story... no thanks!

The hair wasn’t great. Honestly, none of the girls had their best looks this season, but the hair does greatly improve later on :)

Hw said...

I honestly think that "Thank You For Not Morphing" was the worst episode of the first season, and it's what nearly made me stop watching the show entirely despite loving the first two episodes (or at least, the first one, but the second one wasn't bad). It literally took me about ten rewatches of the first season to understand what was going on with the shapeshifters and Victor, and the details are still muddled in my head.

Prue's hair was my favorite in this season, especially when it was at its shortest in the beginning. I thought it gave her a more professional look, and when her hair was at its longest sometimes it just did whatever it wanted and didn't look as nicely maintained. I liked Piper's bangs in this season, too. We can probably all agree that Phoebe's hair was the worst in season one, though.

I appreciate you highlighting the fact that Andy was getting worn out as a character! I know a lot of fans who lament his leaving the show, but I just can't see how what he could have brought to the show after the fulfillment of his "will-she-won't-she" arc with Prue.

Panda said...

Absolutely. ‘Morphing’ was really messy, and the motives were so confusing on first watch.

sunbunny said...

Well, I also like BtVS’s Beer Bad so... :)

Panda said...

Yikes :)

Hw said...

I also actually like "Wedding From Hell" and BtVS' "Beer Bad." They're not great episodes, but they're hoaky so even though they're not good, they're fun enough in places, and the parts that are bad are fun to mock. Also, I would absolutely wear the jacket that Jade D'mon/Hecate wears in her first appearance.