Charmed: sister witches juggle life and magic in this oddly relatable late-90s cult hit show

<span>Photograph: United Archives GmbH/Alamy</span>
Photograph: United Archives GmbH/Alamy

I will tell anyone in the world I’m the biggest Buffy fan alive, but I’m far more reticent to disclose my other guilty (but equally passionate) pleasure: Charmed.

Charmed, the TV series that follows a coven of witches in San Francisco, has for far too long been relegated to the status of Buffy’s less sophisticated, more mainstream, younger sister. It’s time, friends, to elevate Charmed to its equal place next to Buffy in the cult TV hall of fame (not just my DVD collection).

Charmed first screened in 1998, hot on the heels of that other show, seeking to capitalise on a seemingly voracious appetite among viewers for supernatural high camp.

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The conceit of the show is that it’s about sisters who happen to be witches. Other parts of their lives – their love for each other, their relationships, their kids, hopes and dreams – are equally as central. And the balancing act in making all the puzzle pieces fit together, the spinning plate endeavour that most women experience in this day and age, is central to the story.

It’s that relatability that really brings the magic to this show. The three main characters are the Halliwells: oldest sister Prue (Shannen Doherty), middle sister Piper (Holly Marie Combs) and Phoebe (Alyssa Milano).

Shannen Doherty directed several episodes of Charmed, including the last episode of the third season, which was not only the best episode of the whole show, but also ended up being Doherty’s last. Her character was replaced by half-sister Paige (Rose McGowan), and later an additional principal character was added in Billie (Kaley Cuoco).

Oldest sister Prue feels the burden of responsibility after the death of the two Halliwell family matriarchs, her mother and her grandmother. Piper wants a career and a life outside magic and constantly feels the weight of the family business on those desires. Phoebe struggles with a complicated and abusive relationship and later with her search for new love, while balancing the demands of her job with studying. With the introduction of half-sister Paige, we have the added complications of infidelity and family secrets.

Rose McGowan, Holly Marie Combs and Alyssa Milano
The introduction of half-sister Paige (Rose McGowan, left) brings complications to the magical world of the Halliwell sisters. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Each of the primary characters have distinctively different personalities and each face challenges that are all too familiar to any woman. It’s one of the core reasons that in 2008 the show became the longest-running hour-long-episode series in American television history featuring all female leads (later surpassed by Desperate Housewives).

The acting in Charmed can be patchy or completely outstanding, the scriptwriting can be funny and insightful or completely predictable and simplistic, and some of the special effects are a little, um, average. But the show shifts and changes, grows and matures, just like the sisters, who come to learn about themselves, what works for them and what doesn’t. This is a show with real heart and a lot of laughs. But you don’t have to scratch the surface too deep to realise that there are some really meaningful and resonant messages contained within, about gender roles, family conflict, parenting, work/life balance, abusive relationships, sex and more.

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I’m not saying that Gloria Steinem would hold it up as an everlasting beacon for feminism, but there are some difficult issues tackled amid the schlock horror, campy giggles and skintight leather pants. It’s supposed to be accessible, and it is. The recent reboot, which first screened in 2018 and continues today, was cast with three women of colour, a nice balance to the overwhelming whiteness of the original.

These days it’s fun to take a stroll through any of the episodes of the original and partake in some cameo-spotting. Between the progressively more hilarious 00s fashion and a masterclass in the uber-creepy by Julian McMahon as Phoebe’s demon boyfriend, you can spot quite a few high profile names, like Billy Zane, Jon Hamm, Amy Adams, John Cho, David Carradine and Charisma Carpenter ... what was that show she was in again?