Arguably, the volume of revived and rebooted TV series has reached absurd proportions. Everything from Magnum P.I. to the Roseanne-less The Connors is either in current circulation or shall be shortly. If a series was successful enough to achieve longevity in the past, then network executives will do anything to further mine lingering nostalgia, and in the case of Charmed, the turnaround has happened in a little over a decade since the original series ended. CBS even tried to reboot the series in 2013 with a scripted pilot that was never filmed. The CW resolved to make the same effort in 2018, and the new pilot doesn’t stray too far from the original series’ early episodes but promises a decidedly more feminist spin.
With that said, it’s tempting to simply compare this reboot about three witchy sisters to the original series, half-heartedly recommend it on those terms, and shuffle off to count the days until The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina lands on Netflix. The main issue with that strategy, though, is that 2018’s Charmed arrives with the “fierce, funny, feminist” tagline, so it clearly invites scrutiny in that regard. Whereas the original, a very Aaron Spelling production, owned its ridiculousness without taking itself seriously. It was also oddly self-aware of its place as a fluffy, supernaturally-infused drama filled with mindless dialogue and silly special effects. That set up involved the Halliwell sisters (played by Hollie Marie Combs, Alyssa Milano, Shannen Doherty, and later, Rose McGowan and Kaley Cuoco) working together to defeat bad witches and warlocks. They discovered the “Power of Three” through a book of spells in their attic and kept up the shtick for eight seasons of sisterly shenanigans.
The reboot is a close retread with modern touches, and though it stars three women of color, the pilot doesn’t launch the series toward a substantially different place (as promised) in terms of female power. The CW’s effort does strive for change (after all, these are very different times than the 1990s) on a teen-friendly network, but the series also relies on sad clichés about feminism. Like, the most outwardly feminist sister is repeatedly described by others as “so angry” — and this dialogue plays as an unfortunate way to shoehorn her ability to harness her own powers. So, the more she learns to control her negative emotions, the more she’s able to concentrate on fighting to avoid evil.
Angry feminists = bad. Calm, serene ones = much more tolerable, right?
This isn’t too different than the plight faced by Shannen Doherty’s Prue in the original, but framing a supposedly ideal feminist as an anger bear is not the greatest message from a show professing to be woke. Yet (small blessings) at least no one appears to have tossed the overused “gritty” descriptor around the writers’ room since there’s already enough darkness (Riverdale and several superhero-centric series) on YA-friendly TV these days.
Nostalgia seekers may enjoy how Charmed preserves some campiness, and other than the updates already discussed, any changes seem arbitrary. There’s the requisite looming house full of secrets, but the pilot is largely set on a college campus and introduces the Vera sisters, women’s studies grad-student Mel (Melonie Diaz) and freshman Maggie (Sarah Jeffery). Soon, the long-lost Macy (Madeleine Mantock) shows up after being summoned by their secretly-witchy mother while she activated the trio’s powers on the night she was murdered. There’s the mystery of mom’s death with which to contend, but the women do have a helper-guide, Harry (Rupert Evans), to explain the basics of what on earth is happening when powers — mind-reading, telekinesis, and the ability to freeze time — begin to surface.
To the reboot’s credit, these sisters at least receive the option of whether to accept their powers or go back to being civilians. That agency wasn’t offered to the late 1990s Charmed Ones, but again, it’s difficult to determine whether this choice was a deliberate one from the writers or a means to set up conflict between the sisters during the pilot. Later, there’s some fun to be had while they try to determine whether a sorority leader is actually a demon, but stereotype-laden Mel also ruins any fun while very seriously claiming that only “strong women” can be witches. That type of outwardly clunky dialogue only pays lip service to the feminist label, all while the characters must contend with an ice-dagger-throwing demon who looks like a budget version dreamed up by a Game of Thrones superfan.