On Sunday night, the CW premieres its updated version of the beloved supernatural soap Charmed—a reboot with a more diverse cast, fewer crop tops, and a penchant for topical references, particularly to the #MeToo movement. The elements of a CW classic are all there: likable leads with good chemistry and immaculate skin; danger and intrigue; ominous cliffhangers. And though these ingredients never quite mesh into something cohesive—in the pilot, at least—theres some bewitching potential here.
The original Charmed centered on the Halliwell sisters—Phoebe (Alyssa Milano), Piper (Holly Marie Combs), and Prue (Shannen Doherty), who was written off in Season 3 and replaced by Rose McGowans character, Paige. Standing in for those witches in the CWs retelling are the Vera sisters: Maggie (Sarah Jeffery), Mel (Melonie Diaz), and Macy (Madeleine Mantock). As in the original, the sisters also have a whitelighter—a sort of guardian angel assigned to be their guide and healer—played this time around by an affable, cheery Rupert Evans. From the outset, each sisters role is well defined, if overly familiar: Mel, a grad student, is a serious “social-justice warrior,” while her undergraduate freshman sister, Maggie, is a bubbly sorority hopeful. Macy, a genetic scientist, is like a blend of Doherty and McGowans characters: like Paige, shes a long-lost half sister, and like Prue, she appears to be the most powerful of the three.
If theres one thing Charmed developer Jennie Snyder Urman proved on her other CW soap Jane the Virgin, its that stereotypical characters can have hidden depths; just look at Janes Xiomara, who could have been a boilerplate “spicy Latina” but instead turned out to be a richly layered woman. Perhaps Charmed will take its sisters on a similar path—but the shows also got a tonal issue to contend with. Its writing and delivery sometimes feel at odds; campy dialogue gets spoken with too much sincerity. In some moments, it aims for a light touch, but more often, it emphasizes its own topicality by pointedly addressing hot social topics—particularly the #MeToo movement. The first episode revolves around a professor at the university who has just been reinstated after an investigation into his alleged misconduct. The sisters mother, also a professor, is livid at the decision: “This is not a witch hunt,” she says as the pilot begins. “Its a reckoning.”
As that line implies, there is no delicacy to the way the new Charmed puts its woke heart on its sleeve. Mel punches a disrespectful male peer while standing before some #MeToo posters. Maggie informs a boy shes making out with that “when it comes to consent, I can change my mind at any time!” The shows official tagline, as revealed on a poster, is “Stronger Together”—which was also Hillary Clintons campaign slogan, as if you could forget.
This hammering lack of subtlety isnt necessarily a bad thing; the original Charmed was hardly understated, and its stars will be the first to say that it was plenty feminist as well. Still, its tough to know how seriously the CW version takes itself—and thats a question it should try to answer, since the original Charmed worked largely because it was so unabashedly cheesy.
Urman and her co-producers have proven on Jane the Virgin that they know how to run a house filled with strong female characters—but that shows earnestness feels incompatible with the world of Charmed, at least as the show was originally conceived. The premieres funniest, most memorable scenes largely come courtesy of Evans, who is clearly having a blast as the whitelighter—enough to make you wish the rest of the cast could lighten up a little. Especially in such a girl power-driven series, its a bit of a bummer to see the bulk of the shows punch lines handed off to a guy. Then again, maybe the Vera sisters will have more jokes to make once theyve had time to accept their mothers death and enjoy their newly discovered powers.
Between Charmed, Netflixs upcoming Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and American Horror Story: Apocalypse, pop culture is having a witchy moment—a flood of empowering stories about women finding and embracing their secret inner strengths. Shows about witches—and, hell, about women struggling to find themselves as they come of age—were a lot more rare when the first Charmed premiered, and increased competition means it may be tough for the reboot to make a case for itself, openly feminist viewpoint or not. But theres enough compelling heart to this series about sisterhood to make me think it, and its three heroines, could still cast an interesting spell—if Charmed finds a little more confidence, and a little more levity.
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