When Charmed first aired, it was dismissed by many as a poor-Wiccan’s Buffy knock-off. Which, considering Buffy the Vampire Slayer was only in its first season, wasn’t intended to be kind. But viewers took to the three Halliwell sisters, and even embraced such story-altering changes as the death of a sister and the discovery of a new one. In the eight seasons Charmed was on the air, love came and went, children entered the picture, and powers were lost and regained too many times to count. But in the end, good always triumphed over evil.
And now, with the final season wrapped up tightly (or rather loosely; there’s still a push from the fans to have a spin-off series created for the next generation of Halliwells), it’s as good a time as any to take a look back at when this series was brand new. Or, in a different vein, When Prue Walked The Earth. For those who are unfamiliar with the series, the original three sisters were: Alyssa Milano as the youngest daughter, Phoebe, Holly Marie Combs as middle child Piper, and Shannen Doherty, sometimes considered the enfant terrible of Aaron Spelling’s stable of actors, as eldest daughter Prudence (or Prue, for short). Shannen left the show at the end of season three amid rumors of clashes with the other actors, which her prior departure from the soapy teen drama Beverly Hills 90210 only seemed to corroborate. Rose McGowan stepped in as heretofore unknown half-sister Paige, a role the actress continued until the series finale at the end of season eight. Fans of the series can be found at either end of the spectrum; there are rabid Prue fans, and there are those who bid her good riddance and welcomed Paige with open arms.
So after all the drama on stage and off, how does the first season hold up? Constance M. Burge, the creator of the show, had her hands firmly in the making of this first season, and it shows with the episodes strong themes of sisterhood and family. Things would start to get soapy a few seasons later, when Ms. Burge left the show, but the first season episodes can be enjoyed in without worrying too much about losing where you last left off. There are a few recurring stories (the men in the sister’s lives is the most obvious one), but each episode has enough exposition to answer any questions a casual viewer may have.
Watching the pilot episode, “Something Wicca This Way Comes”, I couldn’t help but wonder; was Shannen Doherty always this crappy an actress? Maybe it’s the way her character presents herself, or perhaps Alyssa and Holly Marie were able to hide the distaste of the more lifeless sections of script, but there were many times when a scene would fall flat because of her lackluster delivery. Things picked up quickly though, and by episode three, “Thank You For Not Morphing”, Shannen and Prue both seem more comfortable in their own skin.
With twenty-two episodes in the first season, there are too many to cover individually and keep this review manageable. So I’ll go with a few that stand out, for better or worse. “The Truth Is Out There And It Hurts” starts off as a lighthearted story; what would happen if you and everyone around you could speak nothing but the truth? But things get serious when Prue tries to find out if her boyfriend would accept her newly acquired Wiccan lifestyle. “From Fear To Eternity” co-stars B-movie favorite Billy Drago as a demon who feeds off of witches’ fears. The episode’s themes, fighting past fear in order to succeed, and the overwhelming power of love, are dumbed down by Drago’s hammy overacting during crucial moments of the story. To give him credit, he looks uncomfortable throwing his hands in the air and crying “you’re frozen . . . in fear!” I couldn’t help noticing that his demon seemed to have filled cavities. When I’m checking out a characters dental specs, that’s never a good sign. “Which Prue Is It Anyway” is Shannen’s watershed episode; Prue hopes to use a spell to multiplies her strength, and creates several other versions of herself. Since each “clone” has a slightly different personality (one is a workaholic, the other is her repressed sensual self), there’s a whole lot of fun to be had with these different roles, and Shannen does the job with obvious gusto. “That 70's Episode” takes the three sisters back in time to avoid their imminent present-time deaths from a demon bent on taking their powers. They turn to their Grandmother and their largely unknown but beloved mother, who died too early for the girls to remember much about her, for help and guidance. It’s a bittersweet episode, full of the usual Science Fiction time-travel paradoxes, but the flashes of life back then are hilarious, and the episode wraps up with a touching moment between the three sisters.
As with most of Aaron Spelling’s other series (most notably Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place), music played an important part in establishing the overall feel of the episode, even giving little hints on what to expect in the coming scenes. This show was no exception, with up-and-coming or wildly hip new artists providing most of the musical background. Things start off with a bang as the credits roll, to Love Spit Love’s cover of The Smith’s "How Soon Is Now”. Natalie Imbruglia (“Torn”), Semisonic (“Secret Smile”) and Tal Bachman (“She’s So High”) are a few of the singers whose tracks make it on to the first season. The final episode of the season closes with Jane Siberry’s "Calling All Angels”, and I was left wondering why some of these songs never got the radio airplay they deserved. I wish they’d come out with a season-by-season soundtrack, but with copyright restrictions and music industry turf wars I guess I understand why this hasn’t happened. At least we’ve got the original songs; in some TV series DVD collections the songs are different from what was originally aired (Dawson’s Creek, anyone?) Aaron Spelling must have been one heck of a good Executive Producer to keep the original episode songs intact.
I’ve got to be honest here, and say that I lost track of the Charmed Ones after season Six. Okay, after Season Four. But I’d tune in occasionally even after I could no longer keep up with the trials and tribulations of the three sisters, partly out of duty (I hate dropping the ball), and partly because the story of three sisters, bound by blood and power, kept me intrigued. What would come next? Would the sisters ever be able to just live their lives, or would demons haunt their every step? And what’s up with Piper and Leo?
One hint for Paramount? Include a “Play All” feature on any reissues of this set. Yeah I know, pushing “Play” every time I wanted to see the next chapter isn’t exactly a huge burden. Still, it would have been a nice touch. Considering that this set has absolutely no bells or whistles whatsoever (not even a slip of paper listing the scenes titles for each episode), I don’t think that’s too much to ask for. I do give them points for putting each of the six discs in this set in its own, super-thin, individual hard plastic case. That way, if you want to grab just one or two of the discs, you don’t have to worry about getting them scratched when you carry them around –- nor do you have to schlep the entire box set around for protection. Nice touch.
No matter if you lost track of the Halliwell sisters after Prue’s departure, Phoebe’s flirtation with the dark side, or the coming of the kids, Season One is worth a peek for it’s straight-up look at sibling power, Wiccan and otherwise. Even if you never missed an episode, these first-year stories remind us that blood is thicker than water . . . and sometimes that’s a very good thing.