It’s been over 10 years since the Halliwells hung up their brooms, so I’m heading back to San Francisco to see if Charmed‘s special brand of supernatural entertainment still casts a spell…
Episode: 1.17 ‘That ’70s Episode’
Writer: Sheryl J. Anderson
Director: Richard Compton
Despite the spells, the demons and the odd dodgy costume, Charmed has always been about one thing: family. In this first season episode, we finally get a full deck, as three generations of Halliwell women unite (through time and space) to confront the demons of their past. That’s both literally and metaphorically, because while Prue, Piper and Phoebe battle a power-sucking baddie, the real kicker comes when they find themselves face to face with their dead mother.
At this point in the show, we had already met a time-hopping ancestor in the shape of Melinda Warren, but That ’70s Episode is a whole new supernatural kettle of fish. A brief prologue sees the sisters attacked by a warlock who’s so unscary his best line is “Call me Nicholas”. Yeah, quaking in our boots here. Escaping to the attic, the girls play Wiccan roulette by reading a spell at random, and are instantly transported back to the 1970s.
Before you can warble “gypsies, tramps and thieves”, they’ve bumped into kiddie versions of themselves, pissed off Grams (Jennifer Rhodes), who mistakes them for warlocks, and are forced to go on the run in a past without cellphones, Advil, the Book of Shadows or – most importantly – powers.
As with the best episodes of Charmed, the demon stuff merely acts as a mechanism through which the sisters embark on an emotional journey – and it doesn’t get much more emotional than meeting your dead mother decades after she was murdered. The girls first encounter her at the diner where she works, and it’s not difficult to understand why Prue and Piper are rendered speechless when they’re confronted with Patty, aka Mama Halliwell. Finola Hughes is radiant in the role, and her ability to underplay the tragedy of Patty’s doomed future only increases the poignancy.
Rarely for a show that frequently leaned on her for comedy, Alyssa Milano gets the the episode’s most bittersweet moments. Mama Halliwell died when Phoebe was just a baby, and here the youngest Charmed One is given an opportunity to finally create real memories with her mother. Their encounter outside the diner is beautifully handled, and there’s a great pay-off line at the end after Phoebe takes a picture of her pregnant mother with Young Prue and Young Piper. “That’s the best picture of me I’ve ever taken,” she grins.
This really is an episode where family rules and demons drool. Nicholas has a decent plan but is blandly cast, but that hardly matters when the Halliwell stuff is so perfectly executed. Predictably, Grams gets all the best lines. Whether asking what IBM is selling at in the future or boasting about her powerful progeny (“I always knew that I would deliver the Charmed Ones… Uh, once removed of course”), she’s a scene-stealer and a half, and cemented Jennifer Rhodes as a long-standing fan favourite.
Effectively combining nostalgia, time-travel, fun period details (Jaws is showing at the cinema, vintage Cher’s all over the soundtrack) and some seriously hip threads, That ’70s Episode was an early highlight for the show and established a ‘feelings forward’ formula that the writers would return to again and again. In a word: groovy.