Charmed Rewitch: Episode 3 – The one where Piper loses it big time

It’s been 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: 4.07 ‘Brain Drain’
Writer: Curtis Kheel
Director: John Behring

Every once in a while, Charmed pulled off something genuinely cool. There was the time Prue went undercover as a hitwoman (in season two’s ‘Ms Hellfire’), and that episode where they blew up the Manor (‘Kill Billie Vol. 2’). Top of the pile, though, is this scalpel-sharp season four entry, which flips the Charmed universe on its head as Piper is brainwashed into thinking she’s an inmate at a mental institute.

Well, it makes more sense than belonging to a family of witches, which is exactly why this episode works – as The Source kidnaps Piper, puts her into a coma and rewrites her life top to bottom, you totally understand why she starts to crumble and believe the lie. Her world has been nuts ever since she and her sisters first headed up to that dusty attic and found more than just spiders. In a nightmare of demons and ghosts, who can tell what’s real and what isn’t anymore anyway?

It helps that the Manor’s transformation from cosy antique repository to sterile hospital is so brilliantly realised. The show’s set dressers deserve serious kudos for completely renovating its central set, rendering it almost unrecognisable in the process. Sure, it makes little sense for a hospital to be located in an old manor house on a suburban street, but the transformation sells it, and it’s great fun discovering the Halliwells’ home all over again.

The same is true of the cast, who have a ball playing wacky variations on their now well-worn characters. In Piper’s coma world, Leo is recast as a sympathetic doctor (a nice nod to his past as a war medic), while Phoebe and Paige are no longer her sisters, but fellow patients. There’s a lovely moment where Piper’s told Prue isn’t dead but was merely discharged from hospital, and a brilliant gag involving Alt Phoebe’s childish Book Of Shadows.

Charmed Brain Drain

It’s very much a case of ‘Piper, Interrupted’, and the emotional journey Holly Marie Combs takes Piper on here is powerful stuff. At first disbelieving and snarky, she’s slowly broken down by The Source, (posing as a doctor) until she’s willing to give up everything just to be free of pain. Any episode that puts Combs front and centre is guaranteed to exhaust your tear ducts, and this episode is no different.

In a season that struggled to reestablish order in the wake of Hurricane Doherty, ‘Brain Drain’ feels bigger than most Charmed episodes, and that’s partly because season four is where the show became more of an ensemble than ever before. We get Cole and Leo working together to get Piper back (Cole even gets himself caught to lead them to The Source), while Paige has just moved in and is learning the rules, which mostly include ‘demons can attack at any time’ and ‘don’t keep anything nice’.

Charmed was often unfairly dismissed as a silly show with magic, but episodes like ‘Brain Drain’ scream otherwise. Sure, there’s a boobtastic seer in a gold bikini, but this is a seriously grown-up 40 minutes of supernatural entertainment. That writer Curtis Kheel manages to stitch his script with so many clever ideas without it ever unravelling is impressive – between the demon fights and hospital drama, we also get an explanation of why we never see any of the girls’ friends (they’re too busy kicking demon butt) and gags about the doomed grandfather clock (“dammit, we just got that thing fixed!”).

If there’s one downside to this episode, it’s that it kicks off Piper’s obsession with having a demon-free life. While it makes sense here, especially in the wake of Prue’s death, that obsession became the writers’ go-to crutch whenever Piper needed to have an ‘issue’ to deal with. (And what a sour issue to have when you can flippin’ freeze time.) If that’s the worst thing we can say about ‘Brain Drain’, though, we’re obviously dealing with a pretty potent witch’s brew.

Missed an episode? Catch up on the other Charmed Rewitches here.

Charmed Rewitch: Episode 2 – The one with all the Prues

It’s been 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: 1.16 ‘Which Prue Is It, Anyway?’
Writer: Javier Grillo-Marxuach
Director: John Behring

Charmed 116 Which Prue Is It Anyway

It’s a question we all grapple with at some point in our lives: would the world be a better place if there were three Shannen Dohertys? On the evidence of this first season episode, in which Prue triples her power by magicking up a couple of colour-coded clones, probably.

‘Which Prue Is It, Anyway?’ is a standout hour for Doherty, who does much of the heavy lifting when a visit from a power-mad warlord prompts Prue to cast a spell that produces two doppelgängers. Essentially dividing her personality into three, we get Perky Prue (in pink, naturally), who’s a special kind of coked-up chipper, and Punk-Rock Prue, smouldering in black eyeliner and a constant come-on grin.

This really is, as Piper comments, “like The Parent Trap with a B-cup,” and the most fun is in the interplay between the three Prues, who compliment each others’ outfits (well you would, wouldn’t you?) and agree unanimously on everything. That latter development is particularly cute when Prue’s able to outvote her sisters with a ‘majority rules’ three-for-one.

With Prue dominating the story, Piper is sidelined taking inventory at Quake (who says Charmed never deals with real-life issues?). Phoebe fares a little better, having decided she’s “tired of being the one in the family with the passive power” and taken up kickboxing. It’s notable for a character who goes on to do much of the series’ fist fighting – and Phoebe even drop-kicks the week’s baddie in the final confrontation.

Charmed 116 Which Prue Is It Anyway

That baddie is a dull Jean-Claude Van Damme lookalike (check out that mullet) who wields a tacky fibreglass sword and comes complete with a useless sister who contributes nothing to the story. The episode’s biggest shortfall is the warlord’s dry, talky scenes, which would would have been better spent exploring Prue’s predicament.

Because, sadly, the clones ultimately give us little insight into the eldest Halliwell, and they prove ineffectual in the sisters’ fight against the Lord of War. They’re blade-fodder in an episode that takes macabre glee from repeatedly murdering one of its leads (small wonder Doherty became paranoid she wasn’t welcome on the show).

There’s also some truly terrible ‘grief’ acting from Ted King when Andy discovers Perky Prue laid out in the morgue. His attempt to deliver the news to Phoebe gives Alyssa Milano a chance to flex her comedy muscles, which only highlights how out of his depth King is. It’s hardly a surprise he was killed off six episodes later.

Season one of Charmed was definitely a see-what-sticks kind of year; the show ping-ponged between X-Files-type investigations and Buffy-esque monsters as it searched for its own identity. ‘Which Prue Is It, Anyway?’ is a confident step in the right direction, trusting its sisterly interplay and giving Doherty a platform to showcase her range – Perky Prue is a delight. The show often struggled to produce engaging villains, though, and this episode’s is a grade-A offender.

On the plus side, we end on a genuine cliffhanger as Andy puts together a creepy file on Prue. Seems he’s been keeping tabs on her for a while, and now he’s properly suspicious that she has some kind of witchy secrets. It sets up one of Charmed‘s first ever arcs (one that comes to a head in the season finale), and is perhaps the only really notable thing about an episode that never fully delivers on its fun premise.

Missed an episode? Catch up on the other Charmed Rewitches here.

Charmed Rewitch: Episode 1 – The one where Phoebe’s boyfriend dies (a lot)

It’s been 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: 5.08 ‘A Witch In Time’
Writer: Daniel Cerone
Director: John Behring

Charmed 508 A Witch In Time Phoebe

Time travel episodes were Charmed‘s bread and butter – the writers gave us one every season, and they were pretty much always a highlight. While there was the odd stinker (season two’s ‘Pardon My Past’, season six’s cringesome ‘Witchstock’), this season five time-warper is easily one of the best as Phoebe attempts to keep her new beau Miles (a likeable Ken Marino) alive, despite a series of premonitions spelling out his fate.

With Piper and Paige facing the hard truth that some innocents may be beyond saving, especially when the Angel of Death is involved, they attempt to help Phoebe see the truth. Which, obviously, goes down like a led cauldron as Phoebe becomes increasingly determined to save Miles.

Written by series stalwart Daniel Cerone, ‘A Witch In Time’ is classic Charmed. Phoebe’s fashion is horrific (what is that knitted skirt thing?), Leo is verbally abused throughout, and Piper turns on the waterworks to goose-pimply effect. Which of course means this is up there as one of the show’s finest outings.

With only two guest stars, it’s a lean 40 minutes with spot-on priorities. The straight-forward plot is peppered with stellar sisterly interplay – it’s great to see a show (especially this one) trusting its three leads so completely. Special banter points go to Piper, who manages to have an argument with herself thanks to a time rift that has her meeting her future self (“I’m not standing in her way!”).

Charmed Piper A WItch In Time

There’s also some great action courtesy director John Behring, who oversaw many of the show’s best episodes (season two’s ‘P3 H20’ among them). A slow-mo table dash is pure John Woo, and a vertiginous, heart-in-mouth balcony moment would have Hitchcock cowering. (No really.)

That’s not to say ‘A Witch In Time’ isn’t crammed full of Charmed hallmarks – there’s Phoebe/Cole angst, a himbo warlock with a silly plan and (sigh) yet more quickly-reversed sister deaths. None of that matters, though, when those hallmarks feel organic to a story that genuinely wants to explore the notion of fate. If you saw the show’s other exceptional time-travel episode, season two’s equally poignant ‘Mortality Bites’, you’ll know where ‘A Witch In Time’ is headed.

This is undoubtedly Alyssa Milano’s episode, but it’s to the show’s credit that her co-stars never feel sidelined. Cole memorably chows down on Chinese takeaway – surely the most depressed person ever to live in a Penthouse – and despite Phoebe’s emotional cyclone, it’s Piper (as ever) who gets to really dig us in the ribs, particularly in the final act.

Coming in the middle of an unprecedented hot streak for the show (it was preceded by haunted house ep ‘Sympathy For The Demon’ and followed by the excellent ‘Sam I Am’, ‘The Importance Of Being Phoebe’, and ‘Centennial Charmed’), this is Charmed at its best: chirpy, clever and emotionally honest. Oh, and with awful, awful fashion.

Missed an episode? Catch up on the other Charmed Rewitches here.