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Charmed makes real-life fanfiction with a funny but stilted episode

Image: Charmed (The CW)
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Charmed has a lot of meta fun with its hokey setup this week, poking some fun at itself while satirizing its genre roots. Macy accidentally summons the main characters from a television series she grew up watching in which two brothers were sent from heaven to fight demons. Like a 90s version of Supernatural, with touches of Angel/Buffy and even a little bit of original recipe Charmed mixed in, the show-within-the-show is rife with comedic potential.

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Jimmy Tatro and Scott Porter are well cast in the roles of the headstrong, beefy brothers whose approach to slaying demons is souped up with corny one-liners as well as a heaping dose of machismo. “Even fictional guys are gross,” Mel laments. It’s an unabashed indictment of latent sexism on television in the 90s (although a lot of the supernatural series of that time rather deliberately did not fit that mold, as with the aforementioned Joss Whedon vehicles).

But in addition to positioning itself as distinctly different from the macho show-within-a-show, Charmed also seems to be poking a bit of fun at itself while paying tribute to the genre it belongs to. “God characters on this show repeat a lot of exposition,” Maggie observes of “Heaven’s Vice,” and it’s a critique that could easily apply to Charmed, too. That kind of self-deprecating humor actually works quite well here. Charmed isn’t taking itself too seriously.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t sink its teeth into some more meaningful storytelling though. Even though Parker and Maggie’s rekindled romance is far from the most compelling relationship dynamic on the show, their sexual struggles right now are actually quite weighty. Maggie always ends up getting strong storylines that blend the supernatural with the real, because her powers are so directly linked to her emotions. She has walls up with Parker still, and that manifests as actual physical obstacles to their ability to connect. And then while his don’t manifest supernaturally, Parker has walls up, too, deeply affected by his own guilt and by the fear of hurting Maggie again. There are real emotional stakes here, and the way they eventually talk so candidly with each other is refreshing to see.

As far as romantic storylines go, though, Jada and Mel have one of the most dynamic and captivating relationship dynamics right now. Things are somehow messy and clear all at once. They care a lot about each other and are also very attracted to one another, which is always a nice thing to see when it comes to queer women on television who aren’t always allowed to be as sexual in their interactions. But there’s plenty of drama, too, especially now that they’re working so closely with Niko. Thankfully, Charmed isn’t going the most obvious route here by just making Jada jealous of Mel’s obvious lingering feelings for Niko. She’s moved by the love Mel showed for Niko and the personal sacrifice she made.

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Niko also casually drops that there was an easier, less invasive way to protect Niko, a magical witness protection program that the Elders neglected to tell her about. There still seems to be a pin in the whole Sarcana vs. Elders thing, which does Charmed a disservice, because it’s a useful and layered framework for a more serialized arc about good vs. evil, and only picking it up every once in a while creates some confusion about where exactly everyone lies on the issue and also diminishes the stakes. In “Touched By A Demon,” it’s used to stir up tension between Macy and Mel again, Macy deciding she wants to seek help about her half-demon situation from Charity and Mel opting out entirely, distrusting the Elders especially since they also hid the full range of her powers from her.

Unfortunately, the episode doesn’t end up making the most of its genuinely delightful premise, thanks in part to the pacing, which is often wonky on this show. “Touched By A Demon” ambitiously serves up two stunty situations: two fictional TV characters are dropped into reality, and then Macy and Harry are also dropped into the TV show. There’s fun to be had in both worlds, but in trying to do both, we never really get enough time with either for these setups to feel like more than just gimmicks. The premise itself seems something pulled straight out of Angel, but this is no “Smile Time.” Charmed gets its jokes in, but the stakes never feel particularly high, and the concept drives the story so much that it loses its sense of characters. The pieces are all there, but they just don’t quite come together.

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Stray observations

  • Programming note: We have actually decided to scale back coverage of Charmed for the remainder of the season. I’ll still be watching, and I’ll drop in for a review of the finale when that comes. Always feel free to chat about the show with me on Twitter.
  • I do wish the show did more action sequences. Mel and Jada fighting together is part of their magnetic chemistry and charm.
  • On that note, I’m so pro Mel/Jada but also very invested in Niko’s return to Mel’s life.
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