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

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★★★★★

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.

Scream: The TV Series – Season 1

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★★★

“You can’t do a slasher movie as a TV series,” states pop culture geek Noah (John Karna) in the first episode of MTV’s gory, glossy Scream, and you can’t fault his reasoning. “Slasher movies burn bright and fast,” he continues. “TV shows need to stretch things out.” It’s difficult not to agree with him, especially on the evidence of Scream’s first season, an uneven mix of self-aware teens, grisly deaths and occasionally inventive mystery. Though this new incarnation of the ’90s slasher series pays due respect to movie creators Kevin Williamson and the late, great Wes Craven, it struggles to capture the same mischievous sense of fun.

Not that it doesn’t have a bloody good crack at it. Creators Jill Blotevogel, Dan Dworkin and Jay Beattie have 10 episodes to go crazy with the Scream formula, and what they deliver is essentially a cross between Scream and Pretty Little Liars, a show they’re savvy enough to name check in one of their meta tirades. Dworkin and Beattie both previously worked as writers on super-soap Revenge, and there are echoes of that show in Scream, too, to both its benefit and its detriment.

If the first rule of reboots is not messing with the original, MTV’s Scream at least sticks true to that. Relocating away from Woodsboro, the setting of the movies, is a smart move, disconnecting the show from its roots and allowing it to establish its own mythology. We find ourselves instead in the small town of Lakewood, where hot chick Nina (Bella Thorne) is butchered at home after being harassed over the phone. News of her death casts a pall over the town, and there are whispers that Brandon James – a troubled teen who went on a murderous spree two decades previously – has returned once more.

Enter a group of high school friends whose lives are turned upside down by the murder. There’s Brooke (Charlson Young), the cold-hearted bitch who’s having an affair with a teacher, jocks Will (Conno Weil) and Jake (Tom Maden), mysterious new kid Kieran (Amadeus Serafini), plus the aforementioned geek Noah. Oh, and then there’s Emma (Willa Fitzgerald), our very own Final Girl, whose loyalties are torn between her popular, impeccably groomed clique, and old friend Audrey (Bex Taylor-Klaus), who’s just been subjected to an online prank that spectacularly booted her out of the closet.

It’s a big cast, and we haven’t even got round to the adults (including Tracy Middendorf as Emma’s mother). While the teens are the ones we’re supposed to care about, it’s here Scream takes a tumble. Sure, they’re all savvy and quick-witted, but they’re hard to like. A lot of the time, the high-schoolers are so wrapped up in their own dramas (bribing scams, absent parents, sexual identity crises) that they don’t even seem to notice their friends are being butchered with alarming frequency. Brooke in particular comes off cold as a popsicle, while the jocks are completely interchangeable. (There’s an outbreak of smell-the-fart acting in places, too.)

Even Fitzgerald’s Emma makes for a wobbly heroine. Early episodes see her striking the right balance between girl-next-door charm and steely resilience, but as the bodies pile up, the angst sets in. Emma spends at least two episodes spontaneously bursting into tears for a segment of the story that, in a slasher flick, would be over in two minutes. It’s an off-putting diversion that contributes to the season’s midpoint sag, with more and more characters introduced until the show is unbelievably bloated. At times, it feels like Dawson’s Creek with a body count, rather than the knowing, knife-sharp series you’d expect from something branded Scream.

The mystery suffers, too, for being ratcheted out over 10 hours. It wavers between genuinely clever and bafflingly complex, and by the time the denouement arrives, it’s possible you won’t care anymore. (And even then, the unmasked psycho’s gurning ruins any suspense.) Still, there are definite high points, some of which eclipse even the Scream films for sheer audacity. Episode four boasts an engaging, Scooby-Doo-style exploration of a decrepit hospital that is both creepy and exciting, amping up the horror imagery, while a later episode features a death so jaw-droppingly brutal it makes Drew Barrymore’s bisection seem tame.

There are neat nods back to the source material, too. Hellish dream sequences in episode eight are a great throwback to Craven’s Nightmare On Elm Street films, and there are some neat flashbacks that capture an impressively old-school slasher vibe. For everything it gets right, though, Scream gets something wrong. Yes, the visuals are great, but where are all the parents? Halfway through the season, a number of teens are dead, and yet our main cast are allowed to run around at all hours without chaperones.

With its pop culture jokes (Taylor Swift, Walking Dead, Girl, Interrupted), occasionally effective scare scenes, and eerie killer (Mike Vaughn is excellent as the phone voice, though the new mask isn’t a patch on the original), this is Scream, but not as you know it. “I can promise you one thing; it’s gonna be gut-wrenching,” teases the killer at one point, and he’s right. If you grew up watching Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and David Arquette attempting to unmask Ghostface, there’s a certain amount of nostalgia to be enjoyed watching this new iteration. And for all its faults, MTV’s Scream successfully updates the formula, at times innovatively splicing new tech with traditional slasher fare.

The question of whether a slasher movie can work on the small screen remains only half-answered by the time Scream’s finale rolls around, though, because while it pulls off some magnificent feats, it’s also bogged down in too much teen melodrama and characters doing stupid things to fully recommend. With a second season already greenlit, and certain threads left dangling in the first season finale, it’s difficult to see just where the show has left to go.

This review originally ran at Frame Rated.