Charmed

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about.

In 2000, The WB aired what is quite possibly the greatest television promo of all time. In it, several of the now-defunct network’s stars come together for a big crossover dance party set to “December, 1963 (Oh, What A Night).” The promo is a time capsule of the network’s glory days: The late ’90s were a great time for The WB, which had just cornered the teen market with Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek. “Oh What A Night” also embodies a WB series that premiered two seasons prior: Fun, over the top, a bit nonsensical, and featuring plenty of pleather outfits, the promo looks and feels every bit like the supernatural family drama Charmed, which debuted in October 1998.

By the time Charmed began, Buffy had been on the air for a little over a year and had already found critical success. With Charmed, The WB continued to ride that supernatural wave. Constance M. Burge, who created the short-lived Savannah for the network, was hired by Aaron Spelling’s production company to develop a series about witches; The WB was sold on the story of three sisters living in San Francisco who find out that they’re part of a long lineage of magic. And this time, instead of relying on a bunch of relative unknowns, the network had big names to bolster the show. Most notably: Original Beverly Hills, 90210 cast member Shannen Doherty as the telekinetic Prue Halliwell. Following their runs on Picket Fences and Melrose Place, respectively, Holly Marie Combs and Alyssa Milano rounded out the Charmed Ones as Piper (who can immobilize people and objects) and Phoebe (with the power of premonition). The Power Of Three was born.

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Because they were both supernatural dramas airing on the same network around the same time, Charmed and Buffy get compared a lot. It’s a losing battle for Charmed, which never achieved the same level of critical acclaim and doesn’t have nearly the same lasting influence on television as Joss Whedon’s cult classic. For what it’s worth, Charmed was never really trying to be Buffy. Buffy is a coming-of-age tale with demons and monsters standing in as metaphors for typical teenager problems. Buffy wasn’t necessarily subtle about its symbolism, but there was a certain level of nuance to its storytelling, even amid all the camp. Charmed is unflinchingly unsubtle when it comes to its themes and metaphors, and the camp sometimes runs amok. But Charmed similarly used demons and magic to enhance more grounded storytelling. Prue, Piper, and Phoebe are grown women when they find out about their powers, not teens at the beginning of learning who they are and what they want. And whereas Buffy was often about friendship, Charmed is about family. According to showrunner Brad Kern, Charmed’s daily mantra was, “This is a show about three sisters who happen to be witches, not three witches who happen to be sisters.”

Charmed told stories about family and sisterhood through the scope of a supernatural procedural. Most episodes follow a similar pattern: The demon of the week attacks, the Halliwell sisters fail to defeat it a few times before ultimately escaping at the last minute—usually due to some sort of convenient loophole or technicality—and then the sisters regroup at P3, the nightclub owned by middle sister Piper, for some post-demon catharsis. Again, those demons usually play into some larger, more emotional part of the story—inner demons manifest as physical demons. As the series progresses, the demons become more and more powerful, but the Charmed Ones always find a way. The sisters have an alarming habit of winding up unconscious on the floor of their spectacular Victorian-style manor, gashes on their heads, blood spilling from their ears. But with the help of Leo—their Whitelighter, essentially a guardian angel—they always get up, wipe away the dirt and demon guts, and do it all over again.

Until they don’t. Characters rarely die for good on Charmed, but when they do, it hits hard. It wasn’t a story choice to kill the eldest Halliwell sister—the reasons for Doherty’s departure from Charmed remain the stuff of behind-the-scenes rumor—but it happens between the third and fourth seasons. Losing a main character isn’t necessarily a death sentence for most shows, but the dynamics between Prue, Piper, and Phoebe were the foundation of Charmed. The sisters each carried equal weight in the show’s narrative. Without Prue, there was no Power Of Three. Suddenly, Charmed had to start all over again.

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So Piper and Phoebe find a long-lost half sister named Paige, played by Rose McGowan. Yeah, it sounds dumb. It sounds like Prue just gets replaced by some haphazard plot convention. And yet, making this transition work is Charmed’s greatest accomplishment. The writers made a lot of smart decisions when it came to bringing in Paige: Technically, they were trying to fill the void left by Doherty’s dramatic departure, and yet they don’t go the route of having Paige step into Prue’s shoes. She’s a different character entirely. The product of an affair between their mother and her Whitelighter, Paige isn’t like the other Halliwells at all. Charmed adapted to make room for a new sister, and the shift opened up whole new avenues for grounded, emotional storytelling.

Charmed is mostly remembered for the qualities evoked in the “Oh, What A Night” promo. But those demons of the week were connected by clear emotional through-lines, the best of which were relationship-based, rooted in family. The bond of sisterhood always trumped romantic relationships. Charmed undoubtedly has a lot of fluffy and ridiculous episodes in its eight-season run, but it has some deeply emotional and complex ones, too. It isn’t remembered as a “serious” or “dark” show, but its best episodes are the darker, more emotionally tumultuous ones, the ones that really dig into what it means to be sisters so inextricably bound by something as powerful as a supernatural prophecy. Charmed is most captivating at its simplest, and the following 10 episodes capture the show as the supernatural family drama that it is at its core—a story about sisters who happen to be witches, not the other way around.

“That ’70s Episode” (season one, episode 17)

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Unless the story begins well into a protagonist’s magical journey, a lot of supernatural pilots follow the same beats. Charmed has one of those conventional pilots, with its three protagonists all suddenly acquiring magical abilities, struggling to figure out what the hell is going on, and quickly accepting their fate as powerful witches. All things considered, it’s pretty good, but it isn’t essential viewing, especially since most of the character details and relationship dynamics introduced in the pilot get repeated throughout the series. Piper, Phoebe, and Prue face a demon who confiscates souls, a dream sorcerer, a wendigo, and plenty of lower-level demons throughout the first season, but “That ’70s Episode” sends them on a different kind of journey. Instead of protecting innocents, the Charmed Ones have to protect themselves from their own past, traveling back to the 1970s, where they encounter themselves as children and come face-to-face with their mom and grandmother, who are both dead in the present. Even so, Patty (Finola Hughes) and Grams (Jennifer Rhodes) are significant parts of Charmed’s emotional framework. In particular, the sisters are deeply scarred by their mother’s death, and their fears and heartbreak surrounding the tragedy resurface often in the series. In season two, they face the very demon that killed her.

In “That ’70s Episode,” Phoebe reconciles with her own pain over never having really known her mother. The episode has some cute and unapologetically sentimental moments, including Piper and Prue bonding with their younger selves, but Phoebe’s struggle brings it all together. Milano gives a rare subtle performance throughout, and the episode becomes more about the weird and tangled emotions that come from reuniting with lost loved ones and less about defeating the warlock, who is admittedly pretty hard to take seriously. (Some of the guest actors playing villains on this show overdo it in a bad way.) “That ’70s Episode” ultimately embodies Charmed’s core values when it comes to sisterhood and family, and Patty hits on that daily mantra when she decides to bind the young girls’ powers in order to protect them from the warlock: “I’d rather love you as mortal daughters than mourn you as dead witches.”

“Déjà Vu All Over Again” (season one, episode 22)

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Supernatural dramas annoyingly rely on the ability to bring people back from the grave, which always sucks the emotional stakes right out of major deaths. Charmed is guilty of this on several occasions, but the first huge character death on the show turned out to be devastatingly final. Early on in the first season, Prue reconnects with her childhood friend and high school sweetheart, Andy Trudeau (T.W. King), now an inspector in the San Francisco Police Department. They rekindle their romantic relationship, which gets complicated once he learns about magic and has to constantly cover for the sisters at work. “Déjà Vu All Over Again” begins with Phoebe having a premonition of Andy dying, which doesn’t seem like a big deal at first. The whole point of Phoebe’s premonition power is to help the sisters stop whatever she foresees. But Rodriguez, the demon responsible for Andy’s death, has a much more powerful demon named Tempus on his side. Tempus has the ability to turn back time, which he does every time Rodriguez fails to kill all three Charmed Ones. The episode repeats the same day over and over, with subtle changes as Phoebe becomes more and more aware that they’re stuck in a time loop. But the best recurring scene of the episode is between Prue and Andy, who are broken up by the time of this episode but still very clearly have feelings for each other. Prue tells him each time about Phoebe’s premonition, but the emotional stakes get higher and higher each time they relive the conversation.

“Morality Bites” (season two, episode two)

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Especially in the early days, Charmed liked to ask specific questions of morality. “Morality Bites” is one such episode that sends the sisters on a very clear moral arc. It begins with Phoebe convincing Piper and Prue to use their magic to innocuously punish a neighbor who keeps letting his dog shit in their yard. But when Phoebe has a premonition of herself being burned at the stake in the year 2009, the sisters travel to the future and learn that Phoebe crossed the line between protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty in a much more significant way. In the future, Phoebe murders a human baseball player after he assaults a friend of hers. (It’s implied that he raped her.) Her actions set off a witch hunt, leading to the public persecution of witches and Phoebe’s politicized execution. Again, Charmed isn’t exactly subtle with the philosophizing it does in the episode, as Phoebe rather explicitly states that the wrong thing done for the right reason is still the wrong thing, but it’s all held together by believable and effective character work. At first Piper and Prue are only worried about saving their sister, but Phoebe convinces them she has to pay for her crimes. Milano’s acting wavers throughout the series, but she occasionally pulls out a powerful performance, and this is one of those times.

“Apocalypse, Not” (season two, episode 21)

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Piper Halliwell goes from sous chef to nightclub owner—without the help of magic—seemingly overnight at the start of the second season, and even though that requires about as much suspension of disbelief as witches and demons do, it’s a wonderful development. P3 becomes a crucial setting for Charmed, a (mostly) demon-free space where the sisters can reflect, release, and dance it out in ridiculous, 2000s-era fashions. It’s also the perfect excuse for Charmed to bring in musical guests, and soon plenty of big names started trickling in, including many acts you might find in a Lilith Fair lineup. For “Apocalypse, Not,” Paula Cole shows up in the first act, but the sisters’ quality no-magic time gets cut short—as it always does—when the horsemen of the apocalypse arrive in San Francisco.

The lessons learned in “Apocalypse, Not” are admittedly similar to those learned in “Morality Bites,” and Phoebe is again the one to point out that there’s more at stake than sisterhood. The show is repetitive, but within that repetitiveness lies an inherent understanding of these characters and their histories. Prue’s pride and ambition are relentless forces in the series, as are Piper’s insecurity and desire for a normal, magic-free life. Phoebe is the kind and selfless but reckless one. In “Apocalypse, Not,” they have to once again accept that there’s more at stake than sisterhood. It’s a heavy-handed but emotionally rich episode, and the framing of the horsemen as (essentially) corporate, white, finance bros is particularly inspired. (The same season “Apocalypse, Not” aired, Angel was doing something similar with the sinister law firm Wolfram & Hart.) The episode also suggests that the Holocaust and the Cuban Missile Crisis were both caused by dark magic, because Charmed has zero chill.

“Hell Hath No Fury” (season four, episode three)

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If you’re looking for the episode where Prue dies, well, there isn’t really one. Technically, her death occurs in “All Hell Breaks Loose,” the last episode Doherty ever appeared in and also the last episode she directed. Piper and Prue are both technically on the brink of death when the episode ends, and then season four fills in the blanks: Piper survived and Prue died. Afterward, Piper slides down a spiral of grief and anger, which is brought to the surface in “Hell Hath No Fury.” In it, Piper’s rage about losing her sister turns her into a Fury, an evil creature that thrives on anger. Meanwhile, long-lost half sister Paige is taking her first few steps toward becoming the new third Charmed One, and even though Paige represented an easy fix to the show’s Prue problem, the writers make her introduction complicated in a way that acknowledges the tricky emotions of the situation. Piper avoids Paige and is annoyed by her lack of magical knowledge. Losing a sister and then suddenly finding out you have another sister isn’t exactly something that’s destined to go well, and Charmed explores those intricacies. “Hell Hath No Fury” hinges on Paige and Piper’s shared experiences of grief, a storyline that transcends all the magical elements. Combs often out-acted everyone on this show without overacting; her abilities, at times, almost seemed too good for Charmed. Without a doubt, she’s on fire in this episode.

“A Paige From The Past” (season four, episode nine)

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Season four is one of the grimmest seasons of Charmed, with Prue’s death informing the overall tone. But the season also shines a bright spotlight on Paige, working hard to make her as fully realized as the other sisters even though she hasn’t been around as long. “A Paige From The Past” is one of the best Paige-centric episodes, during which she faces her guilt over her adoptive parents’ deaths by traveling back in time and reliving their last day on earth as her teenage self. She faces a similar conundrum as Phoebe in “That ’70s Episode,” ultimately wanting to save her parents from their fate. But this time, it’s an even more tumultuous struggle, as she blames herself for their death. There’s also a wonderfully theatrical and sexy subplot in which Phoebe and her half-demon boyfriend, Cole (Julian McMahon), are possessed by Southern ghost-criminals on a quest to get married. It’s a silly storyline, and Milano’s Southern twang is ridiculous, but believe it or not, it ends up touching on significant emotions for the characters. The episode also epitomizes Darryl Morris’ (Dorian Gregory) role in the sisters’ lives: He’s the only human character to make it to the end, and he’s really the only friend the Halliwells have.

“Long Live The Queen” (season four, episode 20)

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Throughout its run, Charmed told two brilliant love stories: The relationship between Piper and Leo and the relationship between Cole and Phoebe. Piper and Leo’s courtship and eventual marriage is the kind that should have been perfectly uncomplicated if not for the forbidden nature of witch-Whitelighter relationships, but the forbidden nature of Cole and Phoebe’s love is on a whole other level: Cole is a half-demon who becomes mortal and then becomes the Source Of All Evil—the ultimate enemy of the Charmed Ones. And when they get married, that makes Phoebe evil Queen Of The Underworld, setting up a great Charmed story arc. Phoebe is constantly torn between her love for Cole and her responsibilities to her sisters, and that comes to a head in “Long Live The Queen.” Sporting fresh baby bangs and a demon baby in her womb, Phoebe as evil queen is deliciously terrifying. All the sisters turn evil at some point, and whereas Combs plays evil with a more tortured energy, Milano just goes full soap villain. Because of how well-written their turbulent relationship is, it’s hard not to root for Cole and Phoebe, even in dire times like these. The flame between them burns with passion and genuine love: Both are willing to bend their nature for each other. But at the end of the day, family always wins out on Charmed.

“Sympathy For The Demon” (season five, episode six)

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Characters die all the time on television. (242 in the past TV season alone!), and characters die all the time on television for behind-the-scenes reasons that go years without a definitive explanation. In any case, when a main character dies on a television show, their death should mean something. It shouldn’t just happen because it had to happen. Whatever the reason for Doherty’s exit, Charmed managed to make Prue’s death matter, and it kept on mattering long after it happened. She lives on in the other characters, forever imprinted in their hearts and minds. Charmed is starkly realistic about her death and about the way her sisters hang onto it. It worked to the show’s advantage that there was no chance in hell Doherty would ever make another appearance, eliminating the possibility of Prue returning in ghost form or some similar bullshit. But she still manages to sneak into the show in believable and moving ways. Paige constantly feels overshadowed by Prue’s legacy as a near-perfect witch, and that insecurity reignites in “Sympathy For The Demon,” which brings back fan-favorite demon Barbas (Billy Drago). Theatrical as he may be, Barbas is one of the best Charmed demons because he’s scary as hell and able to bring anyone’s worst fears to life. He’s most terrifying here, trapping the sisters in their own home and torturing them with specific fears that lead to Phoebe nearly killing Paige. Piper’s ongoing inner turmoil over balancing being a witch with being a sister—and a mother, wife, and woman with needs and wants beyond her magical calling—gets explored a lot in the series, and it’s certainly on display here.

“Sense And Sense Ability” (season five, episode 20)

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There had to be at least one episode on this list that isn’t so, so emotional. “Sense And Sense Ability” is still a high-stakes installment of Charmed, with the sisters having to fend off a sardonic and powerful crone who’s after Piper’s newborn baby, Wyatt. But it’s one that’s fueled by the show’s playful sense of humor, with a magical comedy of errors unfolding when Piper, Paige, and Phoebe have their sight, voice, and hearing taken away, respectively. The episode showcases the strength of their sisterly bond, though, as they all start to show signs of a subtle telepathic connection, which Leo points out has always been there even if they never noticed it. The episode also starts with Paige singing a way-too-sultry rendition of “Hush, Little Baby” to her infant nephew and then ends with her singing an appropriately sultry rendition of “Fever,” which is all very important to note.

“Something Wicca This Way Goes” (season seven, episode 22)

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Charmed got too complicated in its later seasons, too lost in the magical mess it made for itself. The problem with having supernatural heroes overcome obstacle after obstacle is that the obstacles eventually become grandiose to the point of insanity. As demons turned into far more nefarious and hard-to-beat forces, Charmed became too much about the magic and not enough about the themes that grounded the show earlier on. Along the way, it lost some of its playfulness, too. And when camp starts to take itself too seriously, it loses all of its appeal.

“Something Wicca This Way Goes” should have been the series finale of Charmed. It’s written with a sense of finality and nostalgia for the past. The episode picks up with the sisters realizing that sacrificing themselves is the only way to save the world from Book Of Shadows-swiping demon Zankou. It’s Charmed’s version of “The Gift,” which also should have been the series finale of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. It brings back a lot of near and dear past memories, including several shout-outs to Prue, and it packs quite the emotional punch. Charmed doesn’t fully commit to the whole sacrificing-themselves-to-save-the-world schtick, but honestly, that bleakness wouldn’t fit the show’s voice. It’s much more fitting that they just decide to trick everyone into thinking they died and assuming new identities with the help of magic so that they can live their damn lives once and for all. (Until an unnecessary season eight, that is.) That was always the goal, wasn’t it?

Availability: The complete series is available on Amazon, Netflix, and DVD.

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