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Fall '98: "Charmed"

Two weeks ago I was at the Carnegie Mellon University drama department wrap party for the play Our Town. I met a set designer who told me that a recent graduate of the drama department had been cast in Aaron Spelling's new show Charmed. But Charmed is a show about witches and the actress, citing religious reasons, backed out after reading the first script -- only to be replaced at the last minute with post-nymphet Alyssa Milano.

What does this say about Charmed? I'm not sure. The important thing is that I was at a party with actresses. The kind that get cast in Aaron Spelling productions. Yum.

But after having seen the show, I fervently hope that it wasn't just the actress' religious beliefs that stood in the way; anyone with a semblance of taste or intelligence should have fled at the sight of that script, crying out 'Evil! Evil!' like an ergot-addled Salem Witch Trial accuser.

Charmed is an hour drama about three sisters who happen to be witches -- as they struggle with life, love, and ancient evils while trying to come to grips with their powers. The aforementioned Ms. Milano plays the youngest, a free spirit with the power to see into the future. Shannen Doherty -- yes, that Shannen Doherty -- plays the oldest, an uptight control freak with telekenesis. Some other woman (who comes off, quite incongruously, like a walking screen test for Party of Five) plays the bland middle child, who can stop time.

Charmed's raison d'etre so far has been to give lazy TV critics a pre-fab punchline (Shannen Doherty playing a witch, imagine that!), but I have to admit that the idea had some prima facie promise. I wish that I could tell you that Mr. Spelling had taken eye of Shannon and tail of Alyssa and concocted a campy brew of supernaturally spiced Spelling-brand trashy fun -- the sort that made Melrose Place interesting in its prime.

But I can't. Mr. Spelling has delivered a cauldronful of sludgy mediocrity in the form of a bland family drama. The details of the intra-familial conflicts and struggles with the outside world are inconsequential. What matters is that it was boring. I kept waiting for something interesting to happen -- Doherty on a coke-fuelled jag, the middle sister throwing a Jan Brady-style hissy fit, Milano forgetting to put on a shirt before leaving the house -- but there was nothing of interest. Watching Eight is Enough reruns with the sound turned off would have been more compelling.

The last twenty minutes attempted to graft on an occult adventure, in a move that had all the narrative deftness of throwing a Pinto into reverse at sixty miles an hour. Once again, the details are unimportant -- an ancient evil spirit masquerading as a fashion photographer; his next victim, Alyssa Milano, tied up and helpless; and, the inevitable rescue by the other sisters. What is important is that it tacked on 'confusing' and 'disjointed' to Charmed's already lengthy list of offenses. The special effects in particular were embarrassingly bad, making me yearn for the photo-realism of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters and Doctor Who. This is a network show (yes, the WB counts now) -- you'd think they'd have an effects budget that went into four figures.

Charmed's pilot registered the highest opening numbers of any show in the history of the WB. Sort of like being the least decimated division of WWII Russian infantry, true, but still a success by some standards. Which just goes to show that Mr. Spelling does know better than his critics; I'm afraid Charmed will be with us for quite a while. At least it will be easy to avoid.

One final note to Mr. Spelling: if you're going to go to the trouble to have the villain tie up Alyssa Milano, please put her in a better outfit. May we suggest a leather cat suit? We'd think you, of all people, would know better.


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