Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Charmed, Season 1, Episode 1: Pilot

This is the Charmed reboot. I know a lot of people were quite hostile towards this - and I was most definitely not one of them, being in general open to reboots and being quite welcoming to a Charmed reboot in particular. Especially since there was more than a whiff of homophobia about a lot of the negative commentary

So you could say I was more than a little inclined to be positive towards this show. In light of that I will say… it has potential. I guess. While reminding myself this is just the pilot and things can change a lot

This episode felt very very uneven with some serious issues. One of which was the writers clearly deciding to go for a more humorous tone and not really hitting it. And there’s few things worse than a show which tries to be funny but fails to be. Henry is amusing at times but otherwise it’s fairly flat

But on the plus side, this episode is very much split in two. And it’s the early part that fails so badly - to draw the inevitable Original Charmed comparison, this is the part when we meet the three sisters as people, not as witches. We establish their baseline, their personalities, what their goals are in life and what conflicts exist between them. It fails so badly at this. So utterly badly

The youngest sister is Maggie. She wants to join a sorority and… actually that’s kind of it? She has an ex called Brian who is still hanging around vaguely. But this is kind of all I know of her. She’s going to university and I don’t even know what she’s studying. Hobbies, goals, life - there’s nothing there

Mel is the middle sister, I know she had a girlfriend and she’s passionate about social justice issues especially the #MeToo movement. While I definitely think it’s excellent to involve important and vital social justice movements in media this is kind of ALL MEL is. I don’t know if it’s well meaning, lazily fobbed off or just because all the sister’s characters were so poorly developed at this phase but she’s just wandering rage ball of buzz words. She works as a grad student for… again we have an academic and I have no clue what she is actually studying - perhaps Woman’s Studies like her mother

Macy is the eldest sister and the one who is estranged, believing her mother dead when she was two. She recently moved to town to follow a job and she’s just realise that this is where her mother lived. She’s a scientist - again we’re super vague here: is she a biologist? A chemist? A physicist? An Astronomer? A botanist? “Scientist” is an impossibly vague term.

The opening also really fails to establish the sisterly relationship - partly because Macy meets her two younger sisters for the first time because she decides to knock on the door and say “hey I’m your sister!”. While Mel and Maggie are both dealing with their mother dying due to magical woo-woo in the opening scene (after she tells her daughters who different and special and united they are because this show is subtle like that). Everyone thinks it was an accident except Mel who is raging and determined she was murdered.

Her mother was also reporting a professor at the university for abuse - his victim now in a coma. With her dead more and more people dismissed it as a witch hunt, Mel is driven by more anger to pursue this and putting up #MeToo posters. When a male student defends him she punches him.

Again the relationship between the sisters would be much more easily developed, I think, if we got to see them more before or much after the trauma when they’d started to deal with it we could actually see their actual personalities and relationship more and build in a conflict (like, say, Charmed Original had between Phoebe and Pru) that was less centred on one event.

We meet Mel’s ex, Niko who is a police detective and left Mel because of her all consuming constant rage.

When the three sisters first meet it’s weird because who just knocks and says “hey I’m your sister” - but Maggie is cautiously welcoming and Mel just viciously hostile and drives her out. But all together means they have activated the woo-woo and put out the power before all going back to their daily lives only now with powers: Macy telekinesis, Mel freezing time and Maggie mind reading - I’m guessing because visions are too much of a passive power? I’m wondering if this may be a mistake since visions are also really useful Deus Ex Plot Hook.

The sisters continue their separate lives until they’re all kindapped and tied up in their attic by Henry, the new Women’s studies professor who Mel has already had it out with. Despite this bizarre choice of introduction he quickly unties them (with Macy telekinesis-ing things at his head). He’s their Whitelighter (guide/aid/etc who died 50 years ago) he has the book of Shadows to hand over because they are super powerful Charmed Ones dedicated to saving the world from demons and stopping the upcoming apocalypse: which is heralded by three signs two of which have already happened (Trump and the death of powerful witches have happened, the rest hasn’t). They have 48 hours to choose their destiny - become witches or go back to being human and forget all this happened. He also tells them their mother was a witch, was in the process of unbinding their powers when she died and had pulled strings to get Macy a job in the area to come home to her sisters - and that she was murdered by a frost demon

I think on some level someone wondered “what if Giles were a Whitelighter?” Honestly some of the few amusing lines on this show come from Harry and his arrival makes the turning point when this episode shows its potential. He’s also kind of snarky and has a nifty, slightly-bored air about him that makes him the most amusing character so far. He’s also a master of the snarky insult. Ok about half his lines fall flat but that still makes him the most amusing character. Oh and the underworld doesn’t know about them (it totally does)

Macy is just boggled by the idea of magic and she cannot accept there isn’t a scientific explanation: the scientists has a huge reality wibble over this. While Maggie rejects her legacy opting for a normal life - but this isn’t in the same vein as the Original Charmed with Pipe demanding a normal life because… well… demons seemed to irritate her towards the end of the show? She doesn’t want it because she’s legitimate scared of the demons that will hunt them and this feels like a whole lot more valid a motive than the whole “I don’t want to be a freak” ideal. While Mel embraces it wholeheartedly both in terms of female empowerment and as a method of seeking justice for her mother. This makes a whole lot less angry - which I can see, she has been vindicated, she is believed and now has a clear path to follow to find justice and resolution. This also has her reuniting with her girlfriend.

Maggie decides to return to Kappa house, her sorority because she’s still chasing that dream and is attacked by a demon dog. She manages to run away back to the house so they can have a family meeting about the demon dog, Harry can show off his healing powers and they can Research. Maggie thinks this is exactly why they need to say no to the whole Charmed One thing, Mel wants to find a spell to hunt it down - and Macy brings a really interesting new twist: Science!

Examining the sample form the demon dog she finds a scientific way to stop it without using magic. And I love this - I love this new angle that brings magic and science together. And I want to see more of this… if it’s less… stupid. Because her science is “baking powder”. Yes, demons can be driven off by waffle batter. This is… not sensible or sensical and it’d be hard to see the need for the Charmed Ones when demons that can be banished effortlessly by Mary Berry is actually a thing

I like the concept though

Together they do some baking powder exorcism (Brian, Maggie’s not-quite-boyfriend was possessed) have some embarrassing moments with the head of the Sorority (who seemed to be genuinely trying to befriend Mel as Maggie’s sister) and they call it a day and all get to do some bonding. Mel and Maggie are much closer now Mel has let go of her anger (and found that she can’t use her power while angry - which leads Maggie snarking that her powers are judging her) and it’s all love and apologies. But Macy is the sadder and more touching one: she loves how close they are and how special and precious their mother was (they show her videos of her) but at the same time has to reconcile that with the woman who abandoned her when she was 2 and the very lonely childhood she had after that

She is definitely driven to build bonds with her newly discovered sisters. She’s also the smart one because she realises the possessing demon had no frost elements so was probably not the one behind the killing of their mother. And she realises Mel is alone protesting the new professor - and vulnerable

The professor is, totally-not-shockingly, a frost demon and lures Mel into his lab where we get some… not great but not entirely awful CGI and lots of ominous ice only just held back by Mel’s freezing power. The gang arrives, including a relatively blase Harry who also heals an unpleasant passer by and they throw their power at the demon

Which needs a power of three spell to vanquish. And here we have the biggest change from Original Charmed - we’re going with an arcane sounding ancient language rather than dubious poetry! (Never again will a demon be banished by haiku!). And it doesn’t work…

Because to have the Power of Three they have to embrace their destiny. Mel’s all for it because she’s loving the witchiness. Macy is for it because otherwise they forget everything and she has no sisters - and Maggie’s for it because her sisters saidf yes and are kind of glaring at her. Now the spell works and the demon dies with some ominously threatening words

Yes, we know you’re not the big bad, Ice Dude. If you were you wouldn’t be in the pilot!

They also opt to leave awful guy who doesn’t believe rape victim’s memories intact so he can be seen as a “hysterical man” if he tries to tell anyone

The power of three now all forged, Macy (who is new in town) moves in with them because that was super easy - and a Ouja board tells them not to trust Harry. Which is a shame since he’s their only guard to the supernatural

Which concludes the pilot… and it just wasn’t good for all the reasons I’ve said above with an added side of it being really rather rushed. I had a distinct feel that the writers wanted to run through this because they’re expecting viewers to already know the score - so the power reveal? Rushed. Introduction of who and what a Whitelighter is? Rushed. Introduction to what the Charmed Ones mean and the power of three? Rushed. The Book of Shadows, rushed. I mean I get it you want to tell the story quickly but I think it’s a mistake to assume everyone watching this show is a fan of the original - and newcomers may need more foundation. And we ALL need more foundation about the sisters themselves. I do not want to hear about characters in college while having no idea of what they’re actually studying. They needed more time, some more space

And while I really appreciate any show that is consciously social justice aware - I think there’s a difference between being consciously social justice aware because you care, these things matter and should be incorporated into the show - and copy & pasting buzz words to put in your character’s mouths. I mean, Mel’s even aware of the fact that she’s shoe-horning when she actively threatens Maggie to go into a party and lecture the attendees on rape culture. It’s not that she’s doing it but the fact she REALISES this is a threat

The show even parodies this with the head of Kappa House announcing they’re “woke” because of some token work they do - well Charmed, I’d love you to be aware and maybe it was just the rushed format which makes it a little clumsy about including such topical and important issues… but going forward we will see how… subtle its touch is.

I do like that the three sisters are Latinas and played by actresses of colour. Macy is played by an Afro-caribbean woman (who does not identify as latina), Mel is played by a woman of Puerto Rican heritage (though I see no indication the actress is a lesbian - because very very very few casting directors care about authentically casting LGBTQ people: but when there are now multiple discussions about miscasting and the importance of actor identity it’s deeply disturbing that people are going to brush over this or even praise it). Then we have Maggie played by another Woman of Colour whose father is Black and whose mother is an Indigenous Canadian.... And there’s an element of “ubiquitous POC” - this sense that if a Brown person is cast with the approximate skintone the directors are looking for than that’s fine… and it isn’t. Ok, that said, we have a show that is actually centring three WOC and though in no way does that mean we shouldn’t mention the miscasting or should discard it, it still deserves a whole lot of praise for centring three WOC which not a whole lot of shows do - and ultimately while the criticism is accurate and absolutely should not be silenced, at the same time we don’t even have the OPPORTUNITY to level this criticism at most nearly all white shows. And while some of the activism may be a little… on the nose - it’s still good, appropriate and ACCURATE. And besides, it’s not like Mel is the first passionate twenty-something whose powerful and important activism has lacked subtlety.

So back to the episode again… it’s… not good. But it could be.