Paramount Studios presents
Charmed: The Complete First Season (1998-1999)
Phoebe: According to the Book of Shadows, one of our ancestors was a witch named Melinda Warren.
Piper: And we have a cousin who's a drunk, an aunt who's manic, and a father who's invisible.- Alyssa Milano, Holly Marie Combs
Stars: Holly Marie Combs, Shannen Doherty, Alyssa Milano
Other Stars: Brian Krause, Ted King, Neil Roberts, Jennifer Rhodes, Finola Hughes, Shawn Christian, David Carradine
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, mild language, occult themes)
Run Time: Approx. 970 min.
Release Date: 2005-02-01
DVD ReviewAs Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210 wound down, television mogul Aaron Spelling was looking for the next big thing. Apparently, he decided the best strategy was to rekindle a past big thing, as he and Constance M. Burge, who worked on Ally McBeal, came up with a concept very much in the spirit of Charlie's Angels. Instead of three undercover beauties, Charmed, which debuted in 1998 on the fledgling WB network and quickly eclipsed signature series like Dawson's Creek and critical favorite Felicity in the ratings, focuses on three beauties with an even more outlandish secret identities: The Halliwell sisters, the latest in a long bloodline of powerful witches.
Phoebe (Alyssa Milano), Prue (Shannen Doherty), and Piper (Holly Marie Combs) are regular, troubled 20-somethings until they all return to the ancestral homestead in San Francisco and unwittingly unleash their birthright, witchy abilities bound within a family heirloom. Bound by the "Power of Three," the nonsensical lynchpin holding the entire series together (incidentally, it's manipulated, stretched, and violated almost as often as the Prime Directive over the course of the seasons), each has a power that compliments the others'. Piper can stop time, Prue can move things with her mind, and Phoebe can see the future, but usually only when it's really important to the plot (her powers are kind of lame). They draw their magic from the Book of Shadows, a family heirloom that could prove deadly if it falls into the wrong hands, as magical objects are wont to do during sweeps and season-ending cliffhangers.
Though the series eventually developed a rather convoluted continuity to rival that of The X-Files (only with more elaborate costumes), Season One is more or less entirely episodic, with a few character revelations sprinkled here and there as the mythology is developed. Each week, the sisters either encounter someone in trouble, or get in trouble themselves, usually because some evil demon or warlock is trying to break into their house and steal the Book of Shadows (there seem to be many more bad warlocks than bad witches). There is a whole bit of business to explain a little about the source of the trio's power, and there are also these forces known as Whitelighters that protect them, but if you're a fan, you undoubtedly know all about it already, and if you aren't, well, I might as well let you absorb the few bits of continuity in this first year for yourself (including the mystery behind Leo, a love interest for Piper played by the doe-eyed, blank slate Brian Krause, saddled with one of the dullest characters in television history).
The plots tend to be rather high-concept (though much less so this year than in later years, when entire episodes are constructed as excuses to dress Alyssa Milano up as a mermaid or something), and a little formulaic, but they remain entertaining thanks to a likable cast and occasionally clever dialogue. Just don't go in expecting too much—plots are routinely full of holes and continuity errors, and the average weekly villain feels like a something the writers dug out of Joss Whedon's trash can (take, for example, the youth-sucking demon in I've Got You Under My Skin, who extracts the life force from his prey using eye beam effects left over from 1978's Superman and goes from scraggly beast to oily playboy, ready to seduce his next victim).
Stronger installments: The pilot, Something Wicca This Way Comes, in which the sisters reunite under one roof and discover their powers, is a fairly entertaining beginning that sets up the three leads quite well, even if it includes the first in a long line of lame warlock villains). The early Dead Man Dating, which features a romance between Piper and the attractive ghost of a murdered Asian man (John Cho), works despite an overdone "Chinatown" theme (evil Chinese gangster fakes death!) and some corny special effects employed for a soul-collecting fiend on horseback (he'll hunt you down with the terrible power of his LED-enhanced green eye slits!). The charmed ones enter Mulder and Scully territory in the time-traveling serial killer story The Truth is Out There... and It Hurts, and go back in time themselves in That '70s Episode, in which they have to stop an evil warlock (is there any other kind?) from mucking about with their mother's past. In Which Prue Is It, Anyway, one of the year's best, Phoebe has a vision of a warrior coming to town to kill eldest Prue just as he did the witches' distant relative, so the girls cast a spell to create multiple Prues to keep the killer guessing.
The season ends on a high-note with Deja Vu All Over Again, as the girls are trapped in a familiar sci-fi time loop by guest villain David Carradine (can the power of three Kill Bill?), even if it does steal a few pages from the Deanna Troi handbook. But there is a fare share of forgettable installments on the way (The Fourth Sister, The Wendigo) and a few that are downright bad (The Wedding from Hell, When Bad Warlocks Go Good). And various plot diversions drag the episodes into some rather soapy areas, including the will-he-find-out? romance between Prue and Detective Andy (Ted King), the witches' inside source at the police station (I can only take so much of the sisters trying to explain to him why they are involved at so many crime scenes before my eyes begin to suffer strain, what with all the rolling) and the flowering of love between Piper and Leo, a character so unpopular, one well-read message board refers to him exclusively as "the Dolt."
Production values are a bit lacking early on, with frequently embarrassing special effects and stilted pacing, but, as I said, the leads carry it off fairly well. Doherty is the grounding presence, and her brash character gives the legendarily "difficult" actress some good scenes, though not nearly enough. Holly Marie Combs is adorable as the feisty Piper, the optimist of the group, while breakout star Alyssa Milano made Phoebe into a fan favorite, for some reason I can't imagine (though she's a good enough actress, I find Phoebe to be a pretty grating even early on). Guest stars are typically pretty bad, but that's just part of the charm, I guess.
As Charmed has gotten more and more elaborate over the years (it's now in its seventh season, and every episode features a usually labored twist, like a show shot like a noir film or the one with a pirate theme), more attention seems to go into naming the episodes than actually writing the scripts (the pirate episode was called Charrrmed, an end-of-life-as-we-know-it installment that aired a few weeks later was dubbed Extreme Makeover: World Edition ). It's still watchable (and once in a while, as good as ever), but it lacks the character moments and sense of camaraderie between the sisters that made the show such frothy fun in the early years. It's always been turn-off-the-brain entertainment (what do you expect from Aaron Spelling?), but in season one, at least, Charmed's cheesiness didn't make me feel quite so guilty.
Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B-
|Aspect Ratio||1.33:1 - Full Frame|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: Charmed looks decent on DVD, though as is usually the case with TV releases, there are moments that reveal the program's rather low-budget origins. Colors are generally strong, and detail is fair, but certain scenes look much grainier than others. Overall, on par with other television releases of a similar vintage.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: Audio is presented in DD 2.0 mixes that get the job done, but don't really impress (a special effects show like Charmed probably would benefit from a 5.1 mix). Dialogue is always clear and the music and sound effects are balanced evenly across the front soundstage. I never noted much in the way of surround action (aside from background noise and support for the score), but I didn't expect to.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 132 cues and remote access
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy
Extras Review: From what I've read, Paramount "doesn't believe" in putting extras on their television releases (a stance that will sound oddly familiar to anyone who has been into DVD long enough to remember when Paramount refused to add supplements to a DVD release even if the filmmakers were willing and able to do the work). Thus, Charmed includes 22 episodes, and that's it. The shows do include six chapter stops but aren't subtitled (inexcusable as far as I'm concerned), and the presentation overall is pretty lame—cheap packaging, carbon-copy cover art, dull menus.
Oh, but I forgot! Disc One includes some extras, namely trailers for Paramount's releases of Happy Days, spin-off Mork and Mindy, and Laverne and Shirley. Because the target audience for those shows and Charmed is one and the same, I guess.
Extras Grade: D-
Final CommentsCharmed is the show everyone expected Buffy the Vampire Slayer to be (at least, before they decided to make it the focus of their women's studies thesis): A glossy, entertaining, cheesy soap opera with a magical twist. Though the writing is hit or miss and the plots are pretty familiar, the series has its own, uh, charms, and a devoted fan following that has carried it into an eighth season. Paramount's barren DVD set likely won't please many in the coven, but at least the episodes look good.
Joel Cunningham 2005-02-01