Ordinary Witches

Allegories for the Slumber-Party Set

If I were female, watching Lifetime would inspire me only to grow a penis or hang myself. Maybe both in sequence--"That might give us an erection," as either Vladimir or Estragon says. Whenever I check in, the self-styled "women's channel" is making the same meekly unctuous case for femininity that PBS does for intellect, inviting contemptuous dismissal in the guise of affirming the stereotype's virtues. If Lifetime's sitcom Oh Baby were on another network, handwringers would be wearing their palms out at its equation of motherhood and fulfillment. All us Cynthia Stevenson fans are uncorking the Oil of Olay anyway, because her gift for incarnating the discreet looniness of the bourgeoisie has been put to such gratingly twee use; even Stevenson's manic streak can't sell the simpering that's called for in her direct-to-the-camera monologues. Yet the show's genteel venue and insipid air of chirpy refinement can fool tender-minded viewers into assuming it represents some sort of progress, not a setback.

The curious thing about Charmed is that you can easily picture Lifetime's target demographic loving it--and I don't mean that as a putdown. That audience deserves better, and the WB's latest helping of year-round Halloween candy for the slumber-party set fits the bill. While teenage girls can probably grasp the satire in episodes like the one about the superannuated demon who keeps himself looking fit by sucking the youth out of beautiful women with his eyes, they aren't that likely to relate. After all, they're the ones his real-life equivalents will soon be taking to dinner.

Granted, this piece of supernatural whimsy pokes at having a style in the confused but interested way that children prod dead animals with sticks, and its cast does feature both Shannen Doherty and Alyssa Milano. Since it's an Aaron Spelling production, the concept's synthetic origins are blatant--a mix-and-match of elements from two proven teen hits, WB stablemate Buffy the Vampire Slayer and ABC's Sabrina the Teenage Witch, not to mention the big-screen Nicole Kidman­Sandra Bullock vehicle (broomstick?), Practical Magic, which it beat to the post with a nearly identical gimmick by all of two weeks--proving for the umpteenth time that having a great mind is more hindrance than help to thinking alike in Hollywood. But series creator Constance M. Burge, who cooked up the magnolia-dripping Melrose Place knockoff Savannahfor Spelling a few seasons back, apparently hasn't given up on wanting to make the formulaic soulful, and here the combination clicks. Your first clue that her bid for youth appeal is on the perfunctory side is that the special effects are lousy.

One reason Savannah didn't take was that the relationships among the female characters clearly interested Burge more than the sexual dustups that were supposed to provide its sizzle. Since Charmed reprises the same concerns, you can't say she's changed her spots. Once again, she's dramatizing women's options via a trio of representative heroines: sensible Piper (Holly Marie Combs), impulsive Phoebe (Milano), and temperamental, bossy Prue (guess). But this time, instead of being lifelong best friends--a conceit that, however beloved of scriptwriters, works about as often as George Hamilton--they're sisters. And oh, yeah, instead of being southern belles, they're witches--good ones, natch, stalked not by importunate Dixie charmers but by warlocks out to swipe the magic powers they've inherited from their recently deceased grandmother.

Do you suppose this is some sort of allegory about women who discover the power within and men who want to kill them? Bingo--and if the code already feels déjà vu, I'm not complaining. I think these feminocentric reworkings of fantasy readymades are the most exhilarating stuff on TV, and if this one isn't as revelatory as Buffy's ghouls-and-goblins version of adolescence, there are nevertheless ways in which it elaborates the template. Besides literalizing feminist metaphors, Charmed's premise puts a deliciously apt spin on the nature of family ties--not least since all three sisters, as they learn their way around their legacy, sometimes feel oppressed by an identity they didn't ask to share.

The way their assorted gifts dovetail with their personalities is fun, too. Prue the hothead can fling objects around with her mind, Phoebe has premonitions, and whenever Piper panics, time stands still. (This last, especially, is a wonderful image for a middle sister; unfortunately, it's also the one that looks silliest onscreen.) Burge has her priorities in order--she knows that the point of all the hocus-pocus is that it's a great way of talking about ordinary life. Not only are these some of the most believable siblings on the air, they're dealing with the same banal problems as any other middle-class twentysomethings: career choices, boyfriends, wondering What It's All About. It's just that, while they're pondering these dilemmas, goblins attack them in elevators--which probably won't strike most of the women watching as all that supernatural, either.

On TV, of course, witches are also old hat, giving the show all sorts of familiar business to fool with. The novelty is that the treatment is openly empathetic, which is what Bewitched, for instance, could never fess up to no matter how many women identified with Samantha--and/or wondered what her life was like before she settled down to pouring martinis for that lush Darrin. Another difference is that, unlike Bewitched, this show can be up-front about which issues it's sublimating; when Piper nerved herself to step inside a church for the first time since her transformation, and giggled in relief when not being incinerated on the spot proved she wasn't evil, Candace Gingrich could have spotted the inference in a flash even if it took her brother a bit longer--and none other than Monica Lewinsky could have joined her. That the sisters have misgivings about being witches is a nice touch, as is their recognition that their new status makes them more vulnerable at the same time it gives them resources to cope. And so far, at least, you can't say they're defined by the men in their lives--even though they're not so liberated that they don't sometimes wish they could be.

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