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: 1.04 ‘Dead Man Dating’
Writer: Javier Grillo-Marxuach
Director: Richard Compton
Oh, hi, Charmed, it’s nice to meet you. Four episodes into the show’s wobbly first season, Charmed finally found its groove with this emotional humdinger, which mixed a ghost plot with moments of genuine warmth and romance as Piper (Holly Marie Combs) falls for dead guy Mark (John Cho). Killed by a Chinatown gang member, Mark is attempting to outrun an ancient Chinese soul collector when he stumbles across the Charmed Ones and begs them for their help.
The pairing of Combs and Cho is a big reason this episode works so well. Charmed wasn’t always the most subtle of shows, but this episode perfectly underplays the tragedy of Piper and Mark’s romance. Although unable to touch each other, they share an intense connection that goes beyond the physical, and there’s a lovely scene in which Mark passes his hand across Piper’s face and asks her to imagine she can feel him.
Right from the start, Combs was the heart of Charmed, and that’s never more apparent than in this episode. She ups the emotional stakes hugely, and there’s a real sense of peril that a lot of Charmed episodes lack – Piper cares so much about Mark that we desperately want him to be OK. And just when the day’s been won and you think you can relax, there’s a beautifully delicate funeral scene in which Mark joins his father in the afterlife. Piper’s tearful “leave it to me to fall for a dead guy” is the perfect coda.
In fact, the humour is spot on throughout ‘Dead Man Dating’. While Prue’s boring Andy saga creeps its way to an early grave, Phoebe takes a job as a hotel’s resident psychic. Dressed up in a very I Dream Of Jeanie outfit, her poster (‘The Amazing Phoebe’) is brilliant, and her attempts to save a man who doesn’t want to be saved are laugh-out-loud funny – including her nonchalant confession that she broke off a key in his door so he couldn’t leave his room. Her hit and run premonition was also so impressive it made it into the show’s opening credits.
‘Dead Man Walking’ is where Charmed started to forge its own identity away from the X-Files-esque ‘monster of the week’ premise and Buffy-aping wisecracks. Even showrunner Brad Kern admits they “found” the show when they made this episode. “We were watching the rough cuts in the screening room and went, ‘That’s it! That’s the show!’” he said in 2006. “It was romantic, supernatural, emotional, funny, quirky — it was really an eye-opener. From that point, we tried to figure out how to replicate that vibe going forward.”
You can see why. There’s a confidence to ‘Dead Man Dating’ that makes it feel like a different show to the episodes around it (after this, we got dodgy dream episode ‘Dream Sorcerer’ and bridal misfire ‘The Wedding From Hell’.) Tonally, visually and in its nuanced performances, this is elevated Charmed. It’s where Charmed became Charmed.