Nostalgia can often make us view older TV shows through rose-tinted glasses, but the original 1998 pilot episode of Charmed really does hold up, especially when compared to the pilot episode of The CW’s recent reboot. Both shows focus on a trio of sisters – the Halliwells in the original show, and the Vera/Vaughn family in the reboot – who discover that they are witches with powerful abilities and a grand destiny. The original show ran for eight seasons and starred Shannen Doherty, Holly Marie Combs and Alyssa Milano (with Rose McGowan joining later), while the new reboot stars Madeleine Mantock, Melonie Diaz and Sarah Jeffery as Macy, Mel and Maggie, respectively.
The road to the reboot’s premiere wasn’t entirely smooth, with Combs commenting that while she appreciated the new opportunities creates by the show, she couldn’t see what was “fierce, funny, or feminist in creating a show that basically says the original actresses are too old to do a job they did 12 years ago.” Many fans of the original series were also skeptical of the reboot, and while the premiere drew solid ratings, it didn’t generate much hype amid the crowded Sunday night TV schedule.
While the Charmed reboot has some merits, and plenty of potential, the pilot was fundamentally flawed in the ways it introduced its world and characters. By contrast, the original series’ pilot still holds up in ways that the reboot would do well to learn from. And no, we’re not just talking about that awesome theme song.
The Halliwell Sisters Had Much More Agency
The key distinction between The CW’s reboot of Charmed and the original series – and the main reason why the reboot’s pilot falls short – is that the Halliwell sisters were solely responsible for getting their story started. Phoebe played around with the spirit board, which directed her to the attic, where she found the Book of Shadows and read aloud the spell that would grant the three sisters their powers. The sisters then individually discovered their abilities, with Piper using her time-freezing ability to save herself from a career disaster, Phoebe using her psychic visions to save two skaters from being hit by a car, and Prue (unwittingly) using her telekinesis to take out her frustrations on her boss/ex-boyfriend. Their Whitelighter, Leo, didn’t even show up until episode 3, and his true nature wasn’t revealed until almost halfway through the season.
By contrast, Mel, Maggie and Macy have their powers unbound by their mother, and while they have similar moments of experiencing their magic for the first time, they don’t get a chance to figure out what’s going on by themselves. Instead, their Whitelighter, Harry (Rupert Evans), kidnaps them all, ties them to chairs, presents them with the Book of Shadows and proceeds to explain their powers to them – condescendingly chiding them by saying “girls, girls” when there’s too much crosstalk. He pins Mel’s time-freezing powers to her “control freak” nature and says that Maggie’s psychic abilities are a testament to her “desperate insecurity,” while the girls do nothing to counter these charges except pout in offense.
It’s possible that this is eventually leading to the sisters schooling Harry on his sexism, but for the pilot episode of a show it’s simply not very compelling to have the protagonists tied up and silenced so that they can have everything about their family history and abilities explained to them by a third party. It’s even less compelling for them to win their first big battle only because that same third party is in the room, explaining to them exactly what they need to do. Ironically, despite airing more than twenty years ago, the original Charmed pilot is actually more empowering for its female characters than the 2018 reboot.