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20 years later, we need more shows like Charmed

Contributed by
Jan 29, 2018

It’s official — or, as official as it’s going to get for a while — The CW is bringing back Charmed. The network announced they’ve ordered a pilot of the rebooted series into production, bringing back the Halliwell sisters for a new generation of fans. It’s a well-timed revival, as the original series celebrates its 20th anniversary this fall, and fans of the famous Charmed Ones will be waxing nostalgic, and perhaps primed to introduce their own kids to a series that’s a little less dated than the one with which they grew up.

But there is one thing this new series needs to remember about its predecessor: It may have been about witches and warlocks and demons, but at its heart, Charmed was always about women fighting the horrors of their gender. In fact, it’s a lesson more genre shows should learn overall.

The first few seasons offer the ideal version of this format, as the Charmed Ones learned more about their powers, overcame their interpersonal issues, and were introduced to simpler bad guys than those who would come later as the stakes rose. In just the first two seasons alone, the sisters dealt with career troubles, run-ins with the law, and demonic bosses and boyfriends — all while attempting to balance their normal lives with their witchy ones.

What you fear

The dangers, of course, arrived immediately upon receipt of the Halliwell sisters' magical heritage in the very first episode. Newly awash with powers they did not understand, their very first bad guy was not a stranger or random demon from the depths of hell; it was middle sister Piper’s boyfriend, Jeremy. The two of them had been together for some time at the start of the series, in what Piper thought was a loving, stable relationship — but beneath his perfect exterior, Jeremy hid his dark secret. He had only started dating Piper in order to get close to her, earning her trust enough so he could corner her after she got her powers and murder her to steal them.

It may seem like a common trope among supernatural dramas for friends and loved ones to end up evil, but in this instance, Charmed offered the first example of one of the deepest fears of women: that the person they’re seeing is secretly trying to hurt them. Much like other women who have experienced this fear firsthand, the sisters quickly became paranoid that every relationship they had was doomed to end the same way.

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This came up several more times over the course of the show’s early seasons, most notably in an episode where the sisters have to protect a young woman from her evil, demonic boyfriend, who has become so obsessed with her that he will kill anyone who stands in his way. He chases her across the country and murders people she comes into contact with, making her feel unsafe in her own home. It is a phenomenon far too many women are familiar with, and one that, in this current climate of sexual assault and harassment, has become much more mainstream.

The series touched on a number of additional fears specific to women; it introduced demons who preyed on societal pressures of youth and beauty, demons who needed to kill a certain number of women to gain their freedom (and did so by embodying their worst fears), a demon who seduces and murders women in their sleep, one who preys on young women who believe they’re about to meet their favorite band, and so on. Later seasons brought on further fears associated with motherhood (from pregnancy to parenthood to concerns your child might grow up to be an evil magical dictator) and marriage (what if you literally married the Devil?). As the Halliwell sisters grew up and grew into their lives and abilities, their challenges and fears associated with that maturity changed as well, and so did their enemies.

I just want a normal life

Beyond the show’s main conceit about witches and warlocks and demons and magic, there is a core element that other shows sometimes lose: These are women, and they’ve still got lives. Unlike something like Supernatural, where the Winchesters travel around the country, making a life out of their demon-hunting (it is the family business, after all), the Halliwells never left their hometown of San Francisco. In fact, they never really leave their childhood home. Because they’re not roaming about the country, and because they live in the world, they have to deal with the stresses of real life on top of those associated with saving lives (or the world) each week.

The biggest manifestation of this is probably in their love lives, as a show on the then WB Network (now The CW) has always been wont to do. As the sisters dealt with the fears of evil boyfriends, dating became an even more fraught endeavor. Issues of mistrust, past trauma, and forced secret-keeping made it difficult to get close to anyone, let alone close enough to engage in any kind of deep romantic relationship. 

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But while dating and relationships may have offered the most frequent concerns, the biggest barrier to a “real life” these women encountered over their eight years on the air was in their careers. Right from the outset, money and responsibility were what caused the most friction between the sisters, and caused them the most stress outside their demonic struggles. Piper first discovers her powers while at a job interview. Later in the first season, she discovers that she’s chosen her careers her entire adult life based on what the family needed her to do rather than what she really wanted to pursue. 

Eldest sister Prue, meanwhile, is always depicted as being the most put-together of the three original sisters. She thrives in her job at an auction house, but even as she rises in esteem she deals with jealous co-workers and a boss literally out to destroy her. You see, Prue’s boss and her workplace nemesis turn out to be demons trying, once again, to steal the Charmed Ones’ magic. 

This mixing of real life and the supernatural allowed the show to spend more time depicting actual challenges women face in their daily lives as the women struggled with paying bills, impressing important clients, and standing up to nightmare bosses, all while also dealing with evil monsters using their workplace as a hunting ground.

Even youngest sister Phoebe encountered supernatural issues alongside her struggles to live up to the expectations of both society and her family as she flitted from job to job, only to decide to go back to school in the show’s second season. Along the way, she dealt with everything from covering for her philandering boss to helping the ghost of a fellow student move on.

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Perhaps the show’s greatest achievement, though, was in the way it chose to grow their abilities along with their personalities and personal struggles. Piper’s initial ability, to stop time, fits perfectly with her neurotic approach to life and her tendency to want to take care of everything. She doesn’t have enough time in the day, and so she manifests the ability to stop it. Prue, meanwhile, torn between her commitment to her job and her responsibilities as a witch, eventually gains the ability to astral project, literally allowing her to be in two places at once. And Phoebe, upon finally landing a career as a celebrated advice columnist, sees her natural ability to empathize with the plights of others manifest into a supernatural empathic power.

Family first, magic second

Charmed never would have been what it was 20 years ago if it didn’t focus on the greatest thing that bound these women together (and often threatened to tear them apart). No matter the magic or the demons or the men in their lives, these women were sisters, bonded by blood and a shared upbringing. They may have been at each other’s throats much of the time, but when push came to shove they had each other’s backs. It was that relationship that helped them pick each other up when they were at their lowest, that helped them support each other through relationship woes and career decisions, and that bond which helped them carry on when Prue died.

But family played an even greater role in the show than just binding its main characters in an inescapable relationship. It also set the stage for those women to delve into and get to know their family history. Over the course of the series, whether in the early seasons or late, every one of the Halliwell brood comes to know and understand their family more deeply, whether it’s meeting their matriarch (and delivering her in some very timey-wimey circumstances) or visiting past lives or even just learning more about their parents. Every season offered new insights into where they came from, and showed an appreciation for understanding that heritage. 

It’s something very few supernatural shows tend to do, perhaps because very few shows these days actually focus on family — though many do focus on found families, which is a very different dynamic.

 

This new Charmed series is far from a done deal. The CW has so far only ordered a pilot episode into production, and we won’t know whether they pick up the series for some time. The show’s executive producer, meanwhile, has been quick to point out that the creative team has made some noted changes to the original format, specifically choosing to give the show a “witches vs. the patriarchy” approach to its weekly episodes. What that will actually look like, and whether it will be handled with the same nuance as the original show, remains to be seen. But even if this new generation of Charmed Ones doesn’t come to be, the original still has a great deal to teach us, our children, and television creators two decades after they first got their powers.