Charmed Rewitch: Episode 11 – The one where everybody’s a superhero

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: 5.05 ‘Witches In Tights’
Writer: Mark Wilding
Director: David Straiton

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It’s crazy to think that it was in 2002 – six years before Marvel unleashed Iron Man and took over comic-book moviedom – that Charmed let its geek flag fly with a superhero episode. With its glittering cityscapes, smokey alleys and cool costumes (punk-chick Paige FTW), ‘Witches In Tights’ is an unapologetically camp love letter to comics that has fun sending up things like Adam West’s classic Batman TV series, all while giving the girls a chance to raid the dress-up box for possibly their coolest ever transformation.

This is also one of the busiest ever episodes of Charmed, which has a tendency to make it feel like it’s stuck on fast-forward, like one of the newly superpowered sisters. First up, Piper’s worried that her pregnancy is making her boring, particularly when she discovers Phoebe and Paige have been checking out a hot new club without her.

Meanwhile, Paige is having problems with a hot guy who she can’t seem to relax around, and Phoebe is attempting to take down a villainous landlord; but with Cole determined to prove he’s good, things get more than a little complicated. On top of that, Leo (remember him?) has been charged with bringing an actual live Elder to the manor as the Elder prepares to pass on his powers.

And we haven’t even got to the A-plot, about a bullied teenager with the ability to bring his sketchbook creations to life. Yeah, this is one seriously over-caffeinated episode of Charmed, but for the most part, it all coalesces into an entertaining 40 minutes, particularly when the Halliwells are transformed into superheroes by the sketchy teenager, Kevin (Andrew James Allen).

Ignoring the fact that we have no idea how Kevin knew the Halliwells well enough to draw their super selves, the superhero stuff is handled with a perfectly judged side of cheese. There’s a thrilling moment where Piper catches a bullet with her bare hand (naturally – Holly Marie Combs’ hand choreography was always excellent), and Paige’s slow-mo fist-fight with a supervillain in the manor is hellacool.

Mark Wilding only wrote three episodes of Charmed (he returned for underwhelming season seven eps Freaky Phoebe and Ordinary Witches), and he went on to write regularly for Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. That perhaps explains the episode’s soapy feel, especially with regard to Paige’s bedroom bother and Phoebe’s tenancy crusade. Soapiness has always been part of Charmed’s DNA, particularly during its second season, which is probably why ‘Witches In Tights’ really resembles early Charmed.

505-2Easily the most interesting parts of the episode, though, are Leo’s conversations with Ramus the Elder (Gerry Becker). This is the first time we’ve properly met an Elder, after they briefly appeared (avec hoods) in season three’s ‘Blinded By The Whitelighter’. Ramus is every bit as enigmatic and snippy as you’d expect, and there’s a lovely scene in which Leo asks if his and Piper’s baby will be healthy. (That scene wasn’t originally in the script, but the episode ended up running short, and it was added in later.)

‘Witches In Tights’ was broadcast two years after the M. Night Shyamalan film Unbreakable, at a time when comic-book movies weren’t really a thing. Clearly, though, Charmed was ahead of the game – it probably helped that showrunner Brad Kern previously worked on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman.

Perhaps the episode’s funniest and most philosophical moment comes when Paige removes her superhero mask. “I don’t like it,” she says, discovering that the mask gives her more self-belief. It echoes a conversation Iron Man (aka Tony Stark) has with Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Homecoming. “If you’re nothing without this suit, then you shouldn’t have it,” he says. Luckily, we know the Halliwells are more than the sum of their powers; it’s their bond, brains and bravura that see them through.

Although, actually, Tony and the Halliwells… now there’s a team-up I’d like to see.

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

The X-Files – Examining The ‘Essential Episodes’

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Over a decade after The X-Files closed the door on its cabinet of weirdness in 2002, creator Chris Carter revealed there are 10 episodes X-Files groupies and newbies needed to watch before they dove back into the adventures of Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson). Pretty handy, considering the entire nine-year run amounts to a whopping 202 episodes. We decided to check those 10 episodes out ourselves and see how well they hold up all these years later…

Pilot
★★★★
“The following story is inspired by actual documented accounts,” we’re told at the start of the very first X-Files, and boy does Chris Carter make us believe it. In just 48 minutes, he introduces a great number of the key elements that will define The X-Files for much of its nine year run. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson share great chemistry from the off as FBI agents Mulder and Scully, the latter a scientist and sceptic, the former a believer. With a plot that feels part Twin Peaks, part something else, this is a fun, mysterious and creepy introduction to the world of alien abduction. It’s dated really well, too. Though it looks its age, the storytelling and performances remain hugely compelling, and it’s not hard to see why this grew into a phenomenon. (Season 1, Episode 1)

Deep Throat
★★★★
Pretty much picking up where the first episode left off, this second X-File ramps up the conspiracy angle as Mulder meets ‘Deep Throat’ (Jerry Hardin), a shady informant whose motives remain unclear. Meanwhile, he and Scully investigate the case of a test pilot whose erratic behaviour has his wife concerned. Of course, that leads them into a case involving alien abduction, culminating in Mulder (sans Scully, naturally) encountering a strange, triangular aircraft. Is it a spaceship? Though not as strong as the pilot, Deep Throat builds on its predecessor and boasts an infectious paranoid atmosphere. Hardin is fantastic as the enigmatic informant, and there’s even an appearance by a young (and shaggy-haired) Seth Green as a UFO-obsessed teenager. (Season 1, Episode 2)

Beyond The Sea
★★★★★
An unbelievably dark delve into the aftershocks of grief, this episode from writers Glen Morgan and James Wong puts Scully front and centre as she reels in the wake of her father’s sudden death. Determining to keep working, she attempts to debunk a supposed psychic, death row inmate Luther Lee Boggs (Brad Dourif), only to find herself believing he really can communicate with the dead. It’s easy to draw comparisons with Silence Of The Lambs as Scully finds herself both drawn to and repulsed by Boggs, who has answers she needs, and with Mulder out of action for much of the episode, the episode takes full advantage of . It’s a testament to Anderson’s skill as an actress that she’s not eclipsed by the fantastically creepy Dourif. By episode’s end, Scully emerges wiser – critically – more complicatedly human than ever. (Season 1, Episode 13)

The Erlenmeyer Flask
★★★★
It’s finale time, and The X Files’ first season draws neatly to a close, ending with a scene that mirrors the final sting from the pilot as Cancer Man places a pickled alien in a box in the Indiana Jones-esque file room at the Pentagon. He’s not the only one making a return, with Deep Throat back and crazier than ever, finally offering up some answers – and they’re juicy as prime steak. Scully discovers ET DNA (you can actually freeze frame her mind being blown) and Mulder attempts to chase down a doctor whose DNA has been spliced the ET’s. The stakes have never been higher, and this is a thrilling end to the first season. The conspiracy deepens (just who are these lackeys working for Cancer Man?), the techno-babble is on top form (we learned something about the structure of DNA, woo) and with the FBI threatening to close the X Files, it’s cliffhangers ahoy. This is how you do a season finale. (Season 1, Episode 24)

The Host
★★★
With the X Files closed at the end of the first season, this episode deals with the fallout of that while also delivering as an entertaining monster of the week. Mulder goes on the case of a “giant bloodsucking worm” that’s making its way through the sewers of New Jersey, calling on Scully to lend her scientific eye to proceedings (perform an autopsy, receiving mysterious tip-offs). It’s no coincidence that Mulder’s told he has “a friend at the FBI” within minutes of Skinner assigning him a case that looks suspiciously like an X File, and while this episode’s monster plot is relatively routine (albeit with some great prosthetics), the clever handling of the conspiracy keeps things interesting. Meanwhile, there’s genuine affection in Mulder and Scully’s handful of scenes – it’s Duchovny and Anderson’s chemistry that gives the show its lifeblood. (Season 2, Episode 2)

Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose
★★★★
A relatively talky episode, this third season highlight is buoyed by a fantastic performance by Peter Boyle as Clyde, a psychic with the ability to predict how people will die. He’s brought in to help with a murder case being investigated by Mulder and Scully, and many of the episode’s best scenes involve Clyde and Mulder discussing fate, determinism and the nature of free will – the head-spinny dialogue is a Christopher Nolan wet dream. There’s also a brilliant bit of effects work in which we watch Clyde’s body decomposing, surrounded by flowers, and some fun horror visuals – including a corpse’s face replacing that of a doll’s. While an episode like this probably felt groundbreaking back in 1995, now it’s simply a performance-driven curio that has interesting/intelligent things to say. (Season 3, Episode 4)

Memento Mori
★★★★
Four of The X-Files’ biggest writers (Chris Carter, Vince Gilligan, John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz) combine to script this busy episode, which deals with the repercussions of Scully discovering she has cancer. While she ends up hospitalised, it’s up to Mulder to attempt to figure out a way to save her, which leads him down dark new avenues, encountering clones, more people floating in glass boxes, and that deadly assassin who reduces people to green goop. Oh, and he’s given a hand by the Lone Gunmen, always a welcome addition to any X-File. In the eye of the storm, Anderson gives a series-best performance, though her narration (she’s writing a letter to Mulder) adds little insight into her suffering. Meanwhile, it’s great to see Cancer Man back, with Skinner striking up a surprising deal that could save a certain redhead. In all, this is a zippy episode that furthers the conspiracy while deepening Mulder and Scully’s emotional connection. He even kisses her on the forehead. Gulp. (Season 4, Episode 14)

Post-Modern Prometheus
★★★★★
Frankenstein meets The Elephant Man in surely the oddest and most audaciously entertaining X-Files episode ever made. Setting out to smash the series mould to smithereens, Chris Carter writes and directs a black-and-white ode to Hammer horror in which Mulder and Scully find themselves in “Hicksville” when a woman wakes up pregnant after blacking out for three days. It’s not long before they’re bouncing between weirdo locals and yet more pregnant women as a monster stalks the town, but who is the monster and what does he really want? Boldly trying something new, Post-Modern Prometheus begins with a woman being attacked while Cher plays on the soundtrack and ends with Mulder and Scully slow-dancing to ‘Walking In Memphis’. It’s weird, lovingly crafted and, possibly, the moment the show jumped the shark. Because, really, what could they really do next? (Season 5, Episode 5)

Bad Blood
★★★
What could they do next? Well, keep the comedy coming thick and fast, as with this vampire-themed instalment, which is told mostly in flashback as Mulder and Scully attempt to remember exactly what happened led to them staking a pizza guy wearing fake fangs. Scully goes gooey-eyed over Luke Wilson’s lawman (then gets hungry for pizza for performing an autopsy), while Mulder’s attacked by the glowy-eyed pizza guy. Funny sights include Scully enjoying a vibrating bed and Mulder singing the Shaft theme tune, but despite this episode being scripted by Vince Gilligan, it’s oddly flat, dealing in goofiness instead of the show’s trademark grittiness. (Season 5, Episode 12)

Milagro
★★★★
Less obviously self-referential than Post-Modern Prometheus and Bad Blood, but still effectively taking an inward look at the merit of paranormal stories like those told in the X-Files, Milagro delves into the power of storytelling, exploring how passion often dictates our judgement. This being the X-Files, we also get ripped-out hearts aplenty as John Hawkes’ lonely writer works on a novel that bears a striking resemblance to real events. We’re not in puppet master territory, though, Milagro revelling in atmosphere and ambiguity while laying bear Scully’s secret passions. The episode’s notable for neatly switching her and Mulder’s traditional roles as skeptic and believer, and while this isn’t the showiest X-File, it’s a fine example of its measured, thoughtful approach to storytelling. (Season 6, Episode 18)

This article originally ran at Frame Rated.

Agent Carter – Season 1

agent-carter

★★★★★

There’s been a lot of chatter over the past few years about Marvel’s inability to release a female-led superhero movie. Despite having a roster of comic-book superheroines prime for a trip to the big screen, the studio won’t unleash its first female-led movie until Captain Marvel debuts in 2018. Thank heavens, then, for Agent Peggy Carter. She may not possess super-powers or a snazzy super-suit, and she may not be in cinemas, but with her sharply written and hugely entertaining TV series, she proves what we’ve always known – Marvel women are more than a match for their male counterparts.

Created by showrunners Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Agent Carter is set in 1946, three years after Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) disappeared in the Arctic. Attempting to get on with her life, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) works at the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) in New York City, a pseudo-detective agency where she’s frequently undermined or just plain ignored by her male colleagues. When madcap inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) is accused of selling deadly weapons on the black market, he becomes a “fugitive from justice” and asks Carter for help clearing his name. Pretty soon, she’s drawn into a plot involving terrifying technological gizmos, undercover assassins and Russian mind manipulators.

What’s most impressive about Agent Carter’s eight-episode first run is how confidently it hits the ground running. Its opening moments set the tone as Carter kicks ass and cleans house, all to the foot-tapping neo-jazz of Caro Emerald, and the show’s mission statement is clear: we’re here to have fun, take names and revel in the period detail. Much of that early confidence is down to Atwell, more than comfortable in the role, with this being the fourth time she’s played Carter (after appearances in her own Marvel One-Shot short, she also turned up in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Captain America: The Winter Soldier before reprising Carter in Avengers: Age Of Ultron and Ant-Man).

“I’m capable of handling whatever these adolescents throw at me,” she says in episode one, and we’re never in any doubt of that. Sharing sparky banter with the other agents, who treat her like a secretary, she’s a woman constantly coming up against the brick wall of patriarchy. That she handles it so pragmatically is part of Carter’s charm, and she’s genuinely likeable – a grounded heroine who doesn’t need super-powers or (gasp!) a man to rescue her. Her friendship with waitress Angie (Lyndsy Fonseca) adds an interesting wrinkle, too – this may be a show about a woman’s fight against patriarchy, but it’s also about one woman empowering other women.

There’s one quite conspicuous man whose presence is felt throughout, though. That Agent Carter opens with a replay of the climax of Captain America: The First Avenger is fitting; the ghost of Steve Rogers haunts this first season. Carter never refers to him as “Captain America”, and her grief over the man behind the shield threads every episode with sadness. Carter is struggling to accept Rogers is gone, and her emotional response to uncovering a vial of his blood is hugely moving. It’s these moments of affecting fragility that gift the series vital humanity as it crashes through noir-ish conspiracies and action set-ups.

In fact, for all the explosions and whirlwind fights, it’s Carter’s relationships with the other agents of the SSR that carry the most impact. Over the course of the season, she butts heads with swaggering Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray), shares a bond with crippled war vet Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) and is constantly infuriated by SSR chief Roger Dooley (Shea Whigham). All are alternately her foes and her friends, and there’s a constant undercurrent of tension in their scenes, especially as all three men are determined to bring Howard Stark to justice – which would also mean exposing Carter as a double agent.

Speaking of, Dominic Cooper is brilliant as the playboy inventor. Though his appearances as Stark are kept to a minimum, he’s a bright addition to any episode (even if his American accent occasionally comes off like Nathan Lane after a few G&Ts) and the perfect foil for Carter, his womanising ways never failing to rub her up the wrong way. On the flip side, his butler Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy) becomes Carter’s partner and confidante, and the pair’s burgeoning friendship forms much of the show’s emotional backbone. Showrunners Markus and McFeely wisely keep Carter free from romantic entanglement, instead exploring the men in her life as anything but love interests. Some are her equals, some her inferiors and superiors, but all tease out different aspects of Carter’s personality, affording us a varied insight into the woman Steve Rogers fell for.

Not that the action isn’t thrilling. Like this year’s Man From UNCLE reboot, Agent Carter has great fun with retro tech. Between a self-typing typewriter and boxes full of Stark’s weird inventions, there are cool gadgets aplenty, and many of the episodes revolve around what craziness each new gizmo will unleash. Atwell’s game for the action, too, taking demanding fight scenes that wouldn’t look out of place in a Bourne film in her stride. She’s clearly having great fun in the role, dressing up in silly disguises (blonde wig, lab coat) and delivering pithy one-liners with a delicate touch. Whether trading quips with Stark or reminiscing about Rogers, she’s just fantastic.

It’s rare for a TV series to deliver such exceptional entertainment in its first season, but Agent Carter makes it looks easy. Unlike sister series Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., which wobbled during its early episodes before finding its feet at the close of its first year, Agent Carter starts off strong and only gets better as the season’s arc unfolds. Meticulously planned, it tells a proper, self-contained story, impressively sure of its world and characters. It’s as close to a person first season as it’s possible to get.

And with season two of Agent Carter relocating to Los Angeles, it’s clear showrunners Markus and McFeely are keen to keep Atwell busy with new and interesting challenges. That’s been a hallmark of the show throughout its impressive first season. Its breakneck pace keeps the kicks coming, but some fantastic twists also ensure it’s almost impossible to predict where the complex plot will go next – as with one shock character demise. And though it’ll be sad to lose gorgeous ’40s New York as a backdrop next season, it feels right that Agent Carter will go on to explore new territory. She’s earned her wings, now let’s see her fly.

This review originally ran at Frame Rated.

Charmed Rewitch: Episode 8 – The one where Prue looks like Nicolas Cage

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: 2.05 ‘She’s A Man, Baby, A Man!’
Writer: Javier Grillo-Marxuach
Director: Martha Mitchell

charmed_s2e05_800x450Did it just get hot in here? Between all the sweaty cleavages, gorgeous men-folk and Phoebe proclaiming she’s “aroused” every ten seconds, it’s a wonder the cast and crew made it through this episode at all. Thank goodness they did, though, because with its sexy themes, memorable female villain and snappy banter, ‘She’s A Man, Baby, A Man!’ is one of the show’s most entertaining (and yes, sweatiest) hours.

See, a heatwave’s hit San Francisco and Phoebe’s burning up. Supernaturally. She keeps having saucy dreams about seducing hot guys, but the dreams all end with her killing them. Instead of this being a return for season one’s duff Dream Sorcerer (god forbid), it turns out she’s psychically linked to a succubus, a spurned witch who’s mating with horny men in order to fill her wardrobe with eggs (that’s not a euphemism).

Meanwhile, Piper’s blissfully unaware that neighbour Dan likes her as much as she likes him, and Prue’s baffled when a date says he’ll call and then actually does (go figure). And with Morris asking the girls for help tracking down the hunk hacker, he’s getting closer to the Halliwells’ secret than ever.

As if that wasn’t enough, there’s also the small matter of Prue being turned into a man. Yes (baby), a man. After a spell backfires (shades of ‘Which Prue Is It, Anyway?’ here), she finds herself sans boobs and avec ween, which sends her sisters into fits of giggles and, despite her startling resemblance to a young Nicolas Cage, they rename Prue ‘Manny Hanks’ for the rest of the episode.

The ‘Prue as man’ plot is a spectacularly subversive twist for a show that was all-too-often accused of putting its stars in the skimpiest of outfits. (“The joke was they would always promote the show as Tits And Witches,” showrunner Brad Kern said in 2006. “Like, what are you doing?”) By covering Shannen Doherty up in man-shirts and facial hair (the make-up artist used a picture of Doherty’s then-boyfriend as inspiration), the show’s whole dynamic changes, and the episode cleverly toys with the question: what would’ve happened if the Halliwells had a brother?

2.5So Piper gets annoyed at Man-Prue’s bullish nature (forgetting she’s always like that) and there’s some laugh-out-loud physical humour in Prue attempting to emulate Dan’s manliness (“How about those niners?”). This is Charmed with its thinking cap on – there’s even a great, grisly villain whose modus operandi (a strangulating tongue) is brilliantly/disturbingly phallic.

After their patchy first season, the Charmed writers had clearly been thinking about what they wanted the show to be, and the first half of season two features some of its most innovative ideas. This is just one of them and, despite indulging in the season’s soapier elements (was anybody ever really rooting for Piper and Dan?), it opens up a fun discussion about how miscommunication and misunderstanding go hand-in-hand.

It’s particularly interesting to compare this episode with season eight’s ‘Battle Of The Hexes’. Where that Billie-centric episode regurgitated many of this hour’s sentiments, it did it with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. With ‘She’s A Man, Baby, A Man!’, Charmed struck an impressive balance between Paul Verhoeven-esque raunchiness and Species-style body horror. Perhaps most impressive: it boasts an ‘equal rights’ approach to gender politics that argues that, when it comes to matters of the heart, men and women really are as bad as each other.

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

Charmed Rewitch: Episode 5 – The one in black and white

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: 7.08 ‘Charmed Noir’
Writer: Curtis Kheel
Director: Michael Grossman

Charmed Noir“The ’30s was a fabulous era,” remarks Paige at one point in this season seven episode of Charmed, words Rose McGowan could have written herself. The actress has often spoken about her love of Hollywood’s most glamorous epoch and, with her vintage style and classic looks, I’m not sure many people would be surprised if one day we discovered McGowan had secretly time-travelled to the present from the 1930s. True to its title, ‘Charmed Noir’ fully capitalises on McGowan’s old-school allure by vaulting her into the past for a black-and-white storyline involving gangsters and crooked cops.

She gets there via a book at Magic School – Crossed And Double Crossed – which inexplicably sucks her and current-squeeze Brody (Kerr Smith) into a plot involving a hunt for the ‘Burmese Falcon’ (“You can’t be serious,” the latter rightly scoffs, “it’s a total rip off!”). In an episode with little magic (Paige’s powers don’t work in book world), writer Curtis Kheel cleverly plays with noir cliches, whether dropping pianos out of the sky or – in one gorgeous moment – unleashing a brilliantly realised flashback.

Of course, McGowan slips into ‘Lana Turner’ mode with the ease of a witch skimming clouds with a broomstick. Whether camping up the femme fatale or digging her claws into dirty cops, she’s clearly in her element. Her breathy delivery – at times so incongruous in a show as popcorn as Charmed ­– is bang on the money, and she plays off Smith’s bewildered agent brilliantly.

The real star, though, is the black and white. This stylistic flourish was a sticking point for The WB, the network that originally aired Charmed, which attempted to convince showrunner Brad Kern to dump the concept. He pushed back and thank goodness he did, because while ‘Charmed Noir’ suffers some unavoidable ‘late Charmed’ foibles (a fairy tale creature; a gnome, the dreaded Magical School), it’s also one of its most innovative outings ever.

We’ve seen black and white in the show before (season’s two ‘Chick Flick’ featured Phoebe’s favourite movie, Kill It Before It Dies), and Halliwells have been trapped in inanimate objects before (paintings, films), but that doesn’t diminish any of the fun to be had with ‘Charmed Noir’. There’s some solid continuity (“We don’t do bullets,” one character says, which is true – the last major plot to involve firearms was season two’s ‘Miss Hellfire’) and ‘Charmed Noir’ is ultimately a daring departure that’s masses of fun – and gives McGowan her shining moment in a season that too often lumbered her with fairy tale creatures and Magic School.

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

Charmed Rewitch: Episode 4 – The one at Halloween

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: 3.04 ‘All Halliwell’s Eve’
Writer: Sheryl J. Anderson
Director: Anson Williams

Charmed All Halliwell's EveIt took them a couple of years, but Charmed finally delivered a Halloween episode with this devilishly entertaining third-season cacklefest. Mixing in time travel and resurrected baddies, ‘All Halliwell’s Eve’ accomplishes a neat trick in furthering the Cole/Triad arc, paying tribute to the Halliwell’s history, and digging into the fundamentals of witchcraft – all while giving Alyssa Milano an excuse to dress up (again).

You could never accuse Charmed of being slow, and ‘A Halliwell’s Eve’ stuffs its 40 minutes fuller than a fresh pumpkin pie. The sisters find themselves all dressed up with nowhere to party when, on their way to a Halloween bash, they’re sucked into a time portal and dumped in the 1600s. Targeted by witch hunters, they attempt to rescue a young pregnant woman from the clutches of witch Ruth Cobb (Judy Geeson). But unbeknownst to them, Ruth’s in league with Cole, who’s also taken a little trip down memory lane in an attempt to wipe out the Halliwell line for good.

Given it had never tackled Halloween before, Charmed wastes no time playing with the festive witch gags here. Piper freezes a demon using a plastic wand, while Phoebe both worries about outdated stereotypes and dresses up as Elvira. (Leading Prue to pithily observe: “I am so impressed that you can make a protest statement and show cleavage all at the same time.”)

Meanwhile, the episode niftily finds ways to further the season’s overall plot (read: Cole on the war/smoochpath) while delivering a cracking standalone. When it’s revealed that the pregnant woman is in fact the girls’ ancestor – and the mother of Melinda Warren – the episode takes on a whole new edge, reaffirming that the reason Charmed was great even during its patchier years was that it put family front and centre.

Speaking of, Leo and Darryl are as much a part of the Charmed family as ever here, finding themselves trapped in the Manor with a couple of Grimlocks (gurning like they’ve eaten too many toffee apples). While the Grimlocks are lousy foes, they give Brian Krause and Dorian Gregory an opportunity to buddy up for the first time in three years, having shared very little screen-time previously. (They both look pretty sharp in their uniforms, too, but that’s besides the point.)

Less interesting is Prue’s flirtation with a strapping villager, and the episode’s suggestion that she’s somehow fated to be with him seems wasted when he’s never seen on the show again. Still, the fun here is in the girls getting reacquainted with old magic, finding it in apples, broomsticks and, yes, even a conical hat. Phoebe’s jubilant flying broomstick moment (talk about a coming out) is hampered by dodgy special effects, but the rest – Piper’s Glenda The Good Witch costume, the Leo/Darryl banter, Cole’s deepening conflict – is fantastic. A bit of a treat, you might say.

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

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.