Charmed (2018): Pilot

"This is not a witch hunt."

Of the many reboots to crop up over the past decade or so, this "re-imagining" of Charmed got to me the most; thanks in no small part to how much the OG version meant to me growing up. How could a new CW-ified version ever re-capture the magic of the late 90's WB series? Who could ever come close to replacing the Halliwells? In truth, those were probably the wrong questions to ask. There’s plenty about the original that could do with updating for a modern audience, not the least of which is the white-washed cast that was typical of a network show in the 1990’s. As this premiere drew closer, my concerns evolved into one simple request: that this new group of producers "get" what made Charmed so special. It was a flawed show, to be sure, but underneath it all it was a simple story about three imperfect but relatable sisters just trying to get by. Based on the promo material, it seemed like this version was much more concerned about using the story of the Charmed Ones as a vehicle for on-the-nose political commentary, and well-intentioned, yet overt feminism. Where was the family dynamic that sparked the OG version into the powerhouse it became? Despite this, I remained open-minded going into this pilot, and I was pleasantly surprised with how much this opening chapter got right. It was clunky in places, and the real-world parallels were a bit heavy handed, but its biggest flaws feel like they could be easily ironed out as the series finds its footing.

We start the Veras' story with sisters Mel and Maggie in a similar place to the Halliwells back in the day, with a few major differences. The first of these is that it’s the death of their mother Marisol, not their Grams, that kicks off the chain of events that lead to them receiving their magical birthright. The second difference is that Marisol dies under mysterious circumstances, unlike Penny Halliwell who succumbed to old age and ill health. The third change – and this is a big one – is eldest sibling Macy entering the series as Mel and Maggie’s long-lost half sister, an element that didn’t come into the original until Paige’s introduction in Season Four following Prue’s death. It’s interesting that the producers would choose to start the series off this way. Though it does lend itself to a much stiffer dynamic between the sisters without a pre-established history already in place, we do get to see the show explore the tightening of the sisters’ bond in a more challenging way. Macy is not only throwing Mel’s role as the eldest sibling out the window, she’s also a complete stranger who is suddenly a huge part of Mel and Maggie’s lives. The script doesn’t shy away from this element either, as Macy is met with immediate hostility from former big sister Mel. Though that hostility does dissipate by the close of the episode, it’s clear there will be a lot more teething issues between them further down the line.

One of the smarter switch-ups of the pilot is the concept of each of the girls’ abilities tying into their personalities, abilities that come to fruition once the trio are reunited under the same roof following Macy’s arrival. The original had the girls’ powers controlled by their emotions, with their abilities going into overdrive during more tumultuous times. It was an element that fostered some wonderful character driven material, and this version takes it a step further, something this series can only benefit from.

Macy is a scientist, so naturally her power of telekinesis is bolstered by her strong mind. I wasn’t sold on Madeleine Mantock’s performance from the promotional material, but she surprised me throughout the episode, and Macy’s initial skepticism of all things magic felt genuine, as was her reason for eventually accepting her “witchly fate”; to get to know her sisters and to “figure out this whole witchcraft thing on a molecular level and get a freaking Nobel Prize”. Maggie’s ability to read minds supposedly comes from her innate sensitivity, which we do see in her more open and friendly reaction to Macy’s surprise appearance. It could also come from her “desperate insecurity”, which we also witness as she desperately attempts to fit in during a sorority rush party; behavior that’s all too common in a young person still trying to find their place. The best of these ties is Mel’s power to stop time being common with “control freaks”. She’s the least likable of the three sisters, though this is more of a symptom of the desperate emotional state she falls into for the majority of the hour, pushing away those who are trying to help and generally acting like an angry shrew. By the close of the episode her skittish behavior is broken down as she learns how to control her power; ironically, her ability works when she’s not angry. As Maggie so eloquently put it; “your powers are judging you”. The fact that Mel's flaws are addressed in this way is satisfying, and indicates that the writers are at least aware of the more garish elements of the series, and could be open to improving them in future episodes.

In general, the core cast are good but lack the immediate likability of the Halliwells. The same goes for their chemistry, which doesn’t have the same spark that made Prue, Piper and Phoebe such a delight to watch. These elements can only get better with time, and the pilot made it clear that the potential for a great dynamic is certainly there. It was a comfort to see the writers dedicate more than a few scenes to the three girls just getting to know each other as their lives start to descend into madness. Keeping the original grounded in the Halliwells' bond is what made it work at the worst of times, and those moments renewed my faith in this version's ability to do the same.

Outside of the sisters, the rest of the cast are largely interchangeable, though I get the impression that Rupert Evans’ whitelighter character Harry is going to be unpacked more in the coming episodes, particularly following that cliffhanger ending of the Ouija board warning the girls not to trust him. Evans is one of the better cast members, too, and his Giles-esque performance gives him an instant boost over the rest. Ellen Tamaki, who plays Mel’s girlfriend Nico, is also a cute addition, as is the decision to make one of the sisters a gay woman, but Nico’s presence felt mostly like box ticking. Time will tell whether their relationship is a story worth telling beyond the LGBTQ element, though Nico’s role as a Hilltowne detective will inevitably cause some friction when the Veras get tangled up in the many unsolved crimes that are sure to plague their college town over the next while.

Most of this pilot works, but one of the biggest missteps is the uneven humor which falls flat on more than a few occasions. Magic should be a mysterious, alluring and wonderful thing, but this script tends to lean into the comedic side of the girls new powers more times than it should, and a lot of the demonic confrontations feel more rooted in the absurdity of the situation rather than the seriousness of it. The girls are staring down death and the screaming and fumbling, however natural a reaction, was too over the top, and the stakes never felt raised. A tongue-in-cheek approach is always great in shows like this, but this new version feels like it’s pushing that side of things a bit too far. But like most of the other issues that are prevalent in this pilot, there’s an obvious learning curve, and there’s definitely time for it to work out kinks like this.

I found the over reliance on present-day politics a little jarring, with characters like Mel throwing around lines about consent, and those oddly directed protest scenes feeling at odds with the girls learning to adjust to their new powers elsewhere. The decision to root the show’s core theme of sisterhood into modern day feminism is a clever one, but the not-so-subtle dig at the male patriarchy, and the relevant real-world threat they pose in this story felt a bit heavy handed. The show’s synopsis is important in that respect, as “tearing down the patriarchy” is not just symbolic of characters like Mel playing a huge role in on-campus protests against a professor accused of sexual assault, but is very much related to the demonic world as well, with the aforementioned faculty member actually representing the sisters’ first major demonic threat. This is the type of parallel that if overused could prove to be restrictive, but if the series learns to approach these kinds of themes with more subtlety, it could have the potential to be great. It’s also a nice change from the OG series which rarely took note of the real world outside of the Halliwells’ bubble.

Potions and Notions

It's a relief to see the series use proper demonic appearances for the bad guys, as opposed to the trashy leather ensembles that became common place in the original.

I liked how the girls coming together in the end actually looked, as Macy brought her sisters to her and they called on the Power of Three for the first time. The visuals are certainly on form in this version so far.

Harry alerted the girls to the three signs of the apocalypse.
-The first is when “the weakest of men reaches ill-gotten glory”: “Suffice to say, it’s your current president”. See what I mean about heavy handed? Funny, though.
-The second sign is when “the movements’ great sages fall”; i.e. Marisol.
-The final one is the most interesting for fans of the original: “With the blossoming of death "comes the awakening of the Source of All Evil.”

A lot of the “funny” scenes didn’t land, but there were also a few that did, namely the ones that poked fun at how blunt Mel is.

The “new” Book of Shadows references the girls’ ancestor Melinda Warren, something that’s common between both versions of the show.

Spells and Chants

Marisol: “I feel so lucky to be the mother of two special young women, special in such different ways. Always remember that. You're better together. Your differences are your strengths, and nothing is stronger than your sisterhood. Nurture that.”
Maggie: “Don't worry, Mom. We are all over it.”
Mel: “Yeah, we're gonna nurture it so hard.”

Maggie: “So this means I really was reading minds?”
Harry: “A testament to your innate sensitivity, or desperate insecurity. They're two sides of the coin, really.”

Maggie: “We're sisters, so you don't have to be alone anymore, even when you want to be because I'm warning you now, Mel and I are a lot.”

Despite its imperfections, this was a surprisingly fun start to a reboot that I initially had very little faith in. It laid some great groundwork for the show to explore, even justifying some of the changes that it’s made to the foundations of the original. Tonally it feels a little lost, but I’m more than willing to stick with this to see if it can craft an identity that not only respects the Charmed legacy, but allows this version to stand on its own feet.

6 out of 10 Me Too posters.

Originally posted at PandaTV.

5 comments:

TJ said...

I'm sorry Panda. I sooo disagree with you. Your reviews of the original series was spot on, now...let's just say that I am just sooo deeply disappointed with this pilot. Giving it 1 out of 10 would be generous.

I know, I should not compare it with the original, but I can't help it. The pilot of the original Charmed brought the sisters together beautifully and emotionally, and you could FEEL the bond between the sisters. Here, none of that happened. Instead, we got three bad actors that tried to make the bond but failed miserably. All we got was superficial nonsense.

The light-hearted, yet important feministic view on this take of Charmed misfired big time for me. You can't be feministic and believable at the same time you portrait ALL men as idiots.

I loved the first three Shannen Doherty-seasons of Charmed...and I will try to give this new take a chance...but I am NOT happy so far.

Panda said...

It’s a shame so many fans are approaching the reboot with this kind of attitude but I guess it’s unavoidable. At least you were open to giving it a chance, unlike the raging drones of twitter with the “brign backk the orIginal REALLL CHARMED ONES!!!we want prue pipre and Phoebeee!!1!!”. An OG reunion was never going to happen, people just need to let it go.

It’s funny, I critiqued it in the same way you did, but I saw a lot of potential where you just didn’t see any. A shame, like I said, but unavoidable.

TJ said...

That's true Panda. I saw your optimistic view of it all and I admire you for it. I'm usually quite optimistic myself, but in this case I just didn't have it in me. But like I said, I WILL give it a chance, I know there is always room for improvement. Let's make a deal!?! Let's see what we think after 10 episodes??:-)

Panda said...

Deal. I’m not saying this is perfect, far from it. And it certainly didn’t have the same magic of the original first episode, I just think it had lots of potential and there were elements that I liked. If it doesn’t improve on its flaws or actually take advantage of that potential then I’ll be right there with you and will be dropping this pretty fast. Bar episode 1, it took the OG version more than a few weeks to work out the kinks so I’m hoping the same will apply here.

CrazyCris said...

I enjoyed the original, but was able to admit it had many, many flaws... so wasn't so "iffy" about the reboot (unlike rumors of the Buffy reboot, *shudder*), so I went into this very open-minded.

Sadly, two episodes in, I'm definitely not seeing much worth sticking around for! The demon effects seem awfully cheap for this day and age (even Buffy's first seasons were better!), the dialogue clunky, and the actresses who portray the sisters... meh! The oldest, Macy, ok, but the other two? Ufff!

I'll give it up to 5 episodes to grow into itself, but if it doesn't improve significantly I won't stick around past that.