Bex has reviewed the recently released R1 boxset of the first season of Charmed – a show which mixes witchcraft with the soap opera styling with enjoyable results.
Charmed debuted on the WB channel in 1998, the brainchild of Constance Burge (best known perhaps for Ally McBeal) and Aaron Spelling. Tapping into the supernatural interest created by Buffy the Vampire Slayer the previous year, Charmed focuses mainly on witchcraft and demons. (It owes its origins perhaps even more to the film The Craft than to Buffy, however.) The story revolves around the three Halliwell sisters: Prue (Shannen Doherty), Piper (Holly Marie Combs) and Phoebe (Alyssa Milano). Basically, this trio are the latest generation in a maternal line of witches and their existence fulfils a long-standing prophecy wherein three sisters being born into the line will become ‘The Charmed Ones’, the most powerful witches to walk the Earth and charged with protecting innocents from evil (mostly demons and warlocks in this case).
The show manages a fairly decent concept and the series starts in the usual place, with the girls inheriting their powers when they first meet again after their grandmother’s death. (Although it’s not immediately apparent at the outset, this event is in fact what triggers the return of their magical abilities after having been suppressed throughout their childhood.) So at least the audience, along with the sisters, gets to learn about their powers and how they start to accept witchcraft as part of their everyday lives. For those not already in the know, the powers are: the ability to move things telekinetically (Prue), the ability to freeze time (Piper), and premonitions/clairvoyance (Phoebe). That’s not to say there’s not a certain element of soap opera in this series too. Three pretty young leads? Well, let’s just say there’s plenty of romance and sadness to mingle with the magical aspects of their lives.
Which brings me to the actresses who portray the Charmed Ones. Shannen Doherty (who also of course appeared in Heathers) is most known for her role in Beverley Hills 90210 and her abrasive personality off-screen. In Charmed she brings all her experience of playing/being forthright and also a little vulnerability to the role. Playing the oldest Halliwell sister, her character has the most authority and she’s a huge part of the first few series of this show. I never really warmed to the actress before Charmed, so from my point of view she must be doing something right here. The second sister is played by Holly Marie Combs, who previously starred in Picket Fences… a pretty off-beat show where she made a big impact. Her presence in Charmed is a definite plus, and she is well and away the most talented of the three lead actresses – which is borne out by just how many good plotlines and story arcs she gets when compared to the others (though Phoebe gets quite a lot of limelight in future series). Speaking of which, Phoebe is played by Alyssa Milano, almost exclusively known beforehand for her role as the cute child on Who’s the Boss?, though she also appeared in Melrose Place. She does a good enough job in Charmed, but her acting is a bit more hit and miss than her co-stars, and sometimes well over-the-top. Let’s face it though, the main cast are mostly there as eye-candy! Joining them as regulars are T.W.King as Andy Trudeau, Prue’s love interest for this first series, and Brian Krause as Leo, who is still going strong in Charmed’s 7th series!
One of the interesting aspects of Charmed is that it’s a teen/young adult show where the main characters are slightly older than usual for the genre. Prue and Piper both have to juggle witchcraft with working and Phoebe has left college by the time the show starts. Having to mix real life with the supernatural is where much of the soap opera aspect comes into play, but it also allows for quite a lot of character development as careers change and it also lets new characters be introduced quite regularly. As for this series though, there’s less of an emphasis on story arcs than in subsequent seasons. At least we do get quite a lot of character development though, even if most of the episodes are fairly formulaic monster-of-the-week fare (or should that be demon/warlock-of-the week?). It’s not a bad introduction to the show, but it pales in comparison with later series, where some genuinely interesting storylines are introduced rather than the predominantly one-off episodes found here.
Charmed has undoubtably been a success for the WB, staying in its top shows for a good number of years now. While the overall quality of writing, acting and special effects are in no way as good as the show it’s most often compared to (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), it has its own merits and – dare I say it – charms. This DVD has been promised for a long time, with original rumours placing its street date at the start of 2003… so it’s good to finally be able to say it’s out and available for fans of the series, and for those looking to see what all the fuss is about.
Episode Guide (Which May Contain Minor Spoilers)
1: ‘Something Wicca This Way Comes’
The youngest Halliwell sister, Phoebe, returns to San Francisco to live with her sisters in the house left to them by their grandmother. She finds a book of witchcraft and discovers the house isn’t all that was left to them!
2: ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’
Piper is having trouble coming to terms with fears of being evil, Phoebe meets a photographer who isn’t all he seems, and Prue’s relationship with Andy starts to get complicated.
3: ‘Thank You For Not Morphing’
The girls’ new neighbours turn out to be shape-shifters intent upon stealing the Book of Shadows. Leo, a handyman, starts to visit the house to help fix everything, and there’s an appearance by the Halliwell’s father.
4: ‘Dead Man Dating’
Piper’s love life continues to get confusing as she helps the ghost of a recently murdered young man. Meanwhile Phoebe gets work as a psychic to help bring some money in.
5: ‘Dream Sorcerer’
When Prue turns down a drink from a stranger, she finds her dreams are haunted by a man out to hurt her. Piper and Phoebe meanwhile test out a spell to attract men.
6: ‘The Wedding from Hell’
When a legitimate fiancée gets swapped out by a strange new arrival at the last minute before a big wedding, it’s not hard for the sisters to work out something’s up!
7: ‘The Fourth Sister’
A young teen is befriended by an evil sorceress who inspires her to get close to Phoebe in the hopes of joining the Charmed Ones. Meanwhile Leo finds himself caught between Phoebe and Piper, while Prue struggles to make time for Andy.
8: ‘The Truth Is Out There… and It Hurts’
While the sisters endeavour to stop a killer, Prue casts a truth spell to test out how Andy might react to learning the truth about her. A side effect of the spell reveals her employers at the auction house may not be quite what they seem.
9: ‘The Witch Is Back’
Piper and Leo finally start to get it together, while a freed warlock from the past tries to steal the sisters’ powers. Melinda Warren, the first witch in the Halliwell line, also gets to make an appearance and teaches her descendants more about their powers.
10: ‘Wicca Envy’
Prue is framed for a theft from the auction house, leaving her in police custody and her sisters racing to find a way to prove her innocence. Leo reveals himself to be more than just your friendly neighbourhood handyman.
11: ‘Feats of Clay’
Phoebe’s ex-boyfriend turns up looking for a place to stay. He also has a small favour to ask of Prue – that she helps sell an urn he brought back from Egypt (that just happens to be cursed and stolen – nice).
12: ‘The Wendigo’
Piper is attacked by a vicious beast in the park and starts to get sick. Andy pairs up with an FBI agent on the trail of the same creature.
13: ‘From Fear to Eternity’
The episode takes place around Friday 13th, with a warning about a demon who comes around every 1300 years to scare witches to death on that date.
14: ‘Secrets and Guys’
Prue helps a young kidnapped witch and in doing so realises some of the good she can do in her life. Phoebe discovers Leo’s secret and also that it’s time for him to have a long chat with Piper about the future of their relationship.
15: ‘Is There A Woogy in the House?’
Phoebe’s childhood fears about a monster in the basement are revisited as the imaginary monster shows itself to be all too real.
16: ‘Which Prue Is It, Anyway?’
A warrior comes to town to kill the eldest of the Charmed Ones, which leads to a bit of a comedy of errors with multiple Prues and a very confused Andy.
17: ‘That ’70s Episode’
Fleeing a warlock, the sisters end up back in the 70s when their mother was still alive. They use their time in the past to help put a stop to the warlock in the future and also get some time for family reminiscence.
18: ‘When Bad Warlocks Go Good’
Prue tries to help a young man trying to escape his destiny to become a warlock and assists him against his more evil brothers.
19: ‘Out of Sight’
A reporter spots Prue using her powers to prevent a kidnapping in a local park and starts to stalk her to get a good story. Andy finally learns the truth and the sisters manage to stop a spate of kidnappings.
20: ‘The Power of Two’
Piper leaves on a business trip and Prue and Phoebe therefore have to resolve their issues to work together to stop the ghost of a serial killer from going on a rampage against the jurors that put him in Alcatraz.
21: ‘Love Hurts’
Leo is shot by a darklighter and all the sisters finally learn the truth behind who he really is. Piper casts a spell to swap powers which has predictably amusing effects.
22: ‘Deja Vu All Over Again’
A demon with control over time, Tempus, gets involved with a demon trying to kill the Charmed Ones in an episode that involves a time loop and the day being re-run time and time again until an inevitable conclusion that ends this first series.
The picture is presented in its original 4:3 aspect ratio, naturally in a non-anamorphic transfer. That’s about the nicest thing I can say about it really. OK, so the colours are fine, the skin tones look natural, the transitions between indoor and outdoor scenes work well in terms of lighting… everything you’d expect from a fairly recent TV show is about right. (Let’s not forget that this debuted in 1998, so it’s really not that old.)
And yet the picture is riddled with heavy grain from the first episode onwards. There are some bits where it seems as if it’s beginning to clear up, but then it returns with a vengeance. Compared to other TV shows of the same vintage, even ones that aired on the same channel (Buffy and Angel spring immediately to mind), the video quality on this release is ridiculously bad. It’s definitely a disappointment, especially given how long fans have been made to wait for the studio to bring this hugely popular series to DVD.
The sound is a different matter; it’s perfectly fine and reasonable. There’s an English 2.0 soundtrack which serves the show well enough. Similarly, background music is clean and precise and does not interfere with the series’ dialogue. There’s very little directionality to speak of, but not much was expected to begin with, so no real problems in this area at least! Well, unless you count the complete absence of any subtitle track altogether… again, a dropped ball from the DVD producers, which shows a rather worrying indifference to the fanbase.
Menus, Extras & Packaging
That said, they redeem themselves somewhat by the packaging, which is very stylish: a slipcase with decent artwork holding 6 slimline Amaray cases, each with appropriate pictures on them and the whole ensemble styled in a light purple hue. Quite fetching on your DVD shelf, particularly as more and more distributors are moving to slimline cases for TV series.
In comparison, the disc menus are static and slightly dull, albeit functional. As for extras… well, there aren’t any. (And I’m certainly not including forced previews for Happy Days, Mork and Mindy and Laverne and Shirley in this category.) The lack of any special features whatsoever after the company has had this long to put together this first box set is yet another strike against it.
Charmed is a guilty pleasure for me. I like it a lot, but it definitely has its flaws. The first series DVDs reflect this, with fairly standard (and predictable) stories but good, solid characterisation and likeable characters that haven’t yet had to rely on the deus ex machina plots of later series. The show starts brightly, and this debut series will obviously be welcome viewing for the many fans of Charmed who have patiently borne with the wait. However, the picture is definitely not all that it should be, and it’s such a disappointment to find zero extras on a set that’s been in the planning stages for quite a few years now. Still, maybe we can hope for better with future seasons…
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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