Confessions of a Charmed Addict: Why I Keep Going Back to Halliwell Manor
Several years ago, I posted to a pop culture internet loop, “I am totally hooked on the cheese that is Charmed.” That was a lie; while Charmed does have its Velveeta moments, the things that make me watch the series aren’t cheesy at all. For every unbearably twee episode about leprechauns and unicorns, there are stories that deal honestly with sisterhood, love, longing and loss. Seven seasons have passed, and Charmed is still worth watching for the things that got me the first time I tuned in, the things that charmed me, if you will.
The aspect that grabbed me first was all that power. The magic itself is fun in a nose-twitching kind of way, and it’s very nice that the sisters are Helping Others, but what I really love is the way they fry everybody who tries to hurt them. Prue when she was angry was poetic justice in motion, and once Piper learned to blow things up, it just got better. I’m addicted to that sense of wrongs righted—not only bad guys foiled, but gloating, rude, obnoxious, snotty bad guys, demons that act like every rotten human being I’ve ever met. It was fun that Prue could move things with her mind, but it was satisfying when she moved something right into the middle of a jerk’s sneer. Oh, yeah, I love the power.
But there’s also the sisterhood. Charmed’s premise is inherently sentimental: three sisters reunited by discovering their destinies, forced to work together because their power is much greater when they cooperate, putting aside their differences and becoming a team. Go team. But in the early episodes, it wasn’t hokey because Charmed was still taking itself seriously enough to show the Halliwells as real people with real flaws. In those shows, Shannen Doherty, Holly Marie Combs and Alyssa Milano made their characters so sympathetic and their relationships with each other so emotionally true that they went beyond the Bewitched Brady Bunch into honestly cathartic connection. (The only sour notes from this period were the treacle-soaked appearances of Grams and Dead Mom, especially Dead Mom, who it seemed never had an impious thought in her life until she was outed in the fourth season as an adulterer. That appearance I enjoyed.) The outcome of all of that emotional growth was a family of three strong women working together and supporting each other. That alone would have kept me tuning in every Sunday.
And then there are the love stories. I’m a sucker for a good romance, and there have been some great ones on Charmed, three of the best from the guys with staying power. Ted King’s Andy tried to make things work with Prue for all of season one and then died protecting her, a hero to the end. Brian Krause’s Leo has a doofus personality that meshed sweetly with Piper’s spineless nice girl in the early seasons, but it’s Julian McMahon’s Cole who gets the prize for Best Boyfriend Ever. Part human, part demon and all Phoebe’s, Cole may have been the Source of all Evil, but he was also charming, funny and desperately in love.
The problem is that it’s hard for a series to maintain emotional intensity throughout a long run. Thus, in the early seasons, when the sisters loved and lost, it hurt. Andy’s death mattered. Prue’s death mattered. Cole’s death mattered (all three times). But as the years have passed, Leo has become unbearably pious and dorky, and miscellaneous other boyfriends have come and gone without making enough of an impression for the viewer to care. This emotional attrition wasn’t helped when the show’s writers began to trade drama for campy comedy, which made for either amazing television or cover-your-eyes disaster. The entire romantic arc of Phoebe Queen of Evil (as the vamping wife of Cole’s Source) was brilliant; lecherous leprechauns were just wince-inducing. There’s been some great kitsch—the “Y Tu Mummy Tambien” episode stands out for me here—and abysmal misfires—I’m not getting over that leprechaun disaster anytime soon. In these later seasons, the scenes that featured weak guest actors tended toward mugging and melodrama; those that featured good supporting casts—Adrian Paul as the mummy-lover, Billy Zane’s all too short run as the doomed ex-demon Drake, Oded Fehr’s nicely calibrated evil as Zardok—soared as the actors found the energy and the emotion in the camp and stepped on the “melo” to heighten the drama.
One episode in particular showed Charmed at both its best and worst. In 2005’s “The Seven Year Witch,” long-suffering and incredibly dull Leo was once again taken away from Piper by the Elders, those heavenly storm troopers in choir gowns. Piper was mortally wounded, and only Leo could save her, but the Elders had taken Leo’s memory. . . . I’d go on, but it’s too painful, truly one of the worst plots in Charmed history. (And that’s saying something. Did I mention the leprechaun episode? It was called “Lucky Charmed.” No, I’m not kidding.) In one particularly abysmal scene, Leo chose his life with Piper over his heavenly duties and fell off the Golden Gate Bridge, after which an Elder moonlighting as the Exposition Fairy explained, “He has fallen from grace.” If Paige and Phoebe were truly against evil, they’d have shoved him after Leo.
So why was this episode also great? Because Julian McMahon came back and sparred with Holly Marie Combs, giving Combs somebody to actwith for a change. It was a dark day for Charmed when McMahon left to nip and tuck, and his guest appearance here only underscored the loss. The dialogue in their scenes would have been cringe inducing, except that nobody can sell undying love like McMahon or furious pain like Combs, and their rematch was fast and clean and emotionally true. (My Charmed fantasy: Cole comes back from the dead again, realizes he loves Piper and seduces her. Cole and Piper are such rich characters and McMahon and Combs are so good together that I’d watch that one play out forever. And it’s not like Cole is easy to kill or tends to stay dead. (I’m just saying, it could happen.) Meanwhile, over on the couch, a maniacally chipper Billy Zane was holding his own against Alyssa Milano’s blinding smile and tragedy-tinged perkiness, both of them hopelessly happy to be with each other even though he was doomed to die at sundown. The dialogue in this episode may have been over the top, but the energy was real.
And that’s where Charmed is at its best: when it generates that manic energy in service to honest emotion, an unabashed focus on love—of sisters, significant others and humanity—that refuses to be cynical or blasé. There are very few shows on television that spit in the eyes of the critics and follow their own too-warm-to-be-cool, too-hokey-to-be-hip paths, but Charmed goes blithely on its way, turning its stars into Lady Godiva and Red Riding Hood, dressing the pious in white robes and the bad in black leather, putting the cheese in its cheesecake and the ho in “Holy cow, what is she wearing?” Like the little girl with the curl, when Charmed is good, it is very, very good, and when it’s bad, it’s, well, Dead Mom and leprechauns, but even then I keep coming back for more. This is a show that’s having a damn good time and inviting the viewer to have one with it.
Of course my reasons for watching Charmed aren’t the only ones.The essays in this book will give you twenty-one more viewpoints on the sisters, their roots, their morals and magic, their material world, their lovers and their viewers. And beyond these writers, many more voices weigh in, from the breathless adoration of the Internet fan boards to the snarky loathing of the Television Without Pity critic who is still mourning the loss of Andy and Cole, particularly the shirtless episodes. They and millions like them tune in every Sunday night to see what Piper, Phoebe and Paige are doing (and wearing), drawn by the magic, the sisterhood and the love.
And I’m there, too, because even with leprechauns, even with Leo, even without Cole, I am still hopelessly hooked on the cheese that is Charmed.