Charmed, the WB’s attempt to bottle the lightning that was Buffy and sell it to grown-ups by dressing Alyssa Milano in outfits that were wildly inappropriate for work at a newspaper, has long been one of my guilty pleasures. In recent months, I’ve joked that it’s one of the few pieces of pop culture that I can watch at home and for pleasure because it’s so feather-light that there’s no risk that I’ll accidentally slip into analyzing it. No more. After Sunday’s True Blood finale, I realized something: we’ve reached a point where Charmed is actually a better show than True Blood. Here’s why:
Gaining power changes people’s lives.
One of the things that bothered me most about this season of True Blood was what happened to Lafayette and Tara when we and they learned they had magical abilities: pretty much nothing. Okay, sure, Lafayette got himself possessed multiple times and killed his boyfriend, and Tara was slightly less passive than usual and was rewarded for it with a shotgun to the head. But what did it mean for their, and our, understanding of themselves? Not a damn thing. There’s an interesting story to be told about the gay black man in a rural community who tells himself his whole life that he’s special and then finds out he actually *is*. There’s another story to be told about a woman who has been routinely disempowered and finds the strength to build a different life. Hell, there’s even a story to be told about someone like Marnie, who found safety from a world that judged her in a quirky magical enclave and decided she wanted to make everyone who ever mocked her burn. But True Blood didn’t tell any of those stories, throwing out Marnie’s motivations in single lines, condemning Tara and Lafayette to the usual messed-up relationships black people are doomed to on this show. Magic can serve plot by serving characterization. I’d rather see Lafayette grow as a character than some silly special effects that bring Gran and Rene back from the dead. And not only did Sookie’s shiny new powers appear out of nowhere, they appeared to have precisely no effect on her whatsoever.
Charmed always got this. When Piper got the power to blow things up, it unnerved her, and she had to learn to embrace it. Cole and Richard both struggled against their powers — and then reclaimed them to ill effects — to keep their relationships going. Paige struggled against her whitelighter abilities before accepting them, and the responsibilities that came with them. Having power changes your self-image, the way you interact with other people, your sense of obligation and where you fit in the universe. Charmed has always understood that, even if its three sisters were never as isolated as Buffy — the show wasn’t afraid to sit with the Charmed Ones as they figured things out.
I’ve laid down enough ink on the lost cause that is Tara Thornton, who I have to believe will be back as a zombie or something next season. But in the world of Charmed, no one is a perpetual punching bag, characters of color are professionally fulfilled and happily married, and when people turn bad, they do so with actual agency. None of this possession nonsense. For that alone, Charmed would be less agonizing to watch than the last season of True Blood.
Magical institutions are in actual, meaningful conflict.
Sure, the bureaucracy nerd in me gets extremely frustrated by how inefficiently the underworld is organized in Charmed. There’s way too much factionalism, the Source doesn’t have competent lieutenants (or can’t tell when the competent ones like the Oracle are getting out of control), and evil’s generally too impatient to actually infiltrate human institutions in interesting or illuminating ways. San Francisco would have been so much more interesting if the Source became Mayor, and episodes like “Lost and Bound,” where Paige has to protect a social services client from demonic bounty hunters who are gaming the foster care system were an all-too-rare illustration of the evils of our own systems and institutions.
But there were plot arcs that show serious attention to the role of organizations and hierarchies in the magical world. The struggle to maintain the integrity of Magic School as a center of good and uncorrupted learning is a story about the corrupting influence of power and the myopia of the academy. Piper and Leo’s struggles to build a life in the face of manipulations of the Elders is a thoughtful look at the need for broad policies that can successfully govern the many to (at least sometimes) trump the needs of the few. And the terrible bargain the Avatars offer, of huge sacrifices in exchange for perfect administration, is an illustration of the terrible allure of bureaucracy and order.
In other words, True Blood makes Charmed look like a careful student of James Q. Wilson. Charlaine Harris’ novels do a terrific job of building out the institutions of magic, turning the competition for packmaster into a political campaign, fighting detailed faerie wars, and taking us to vampire conferences that filled us in on the business and political hierarchies of the vampire world. We got some of that with Russell Edgington in True Blood, and now that it seems he’s back, I expect we’ll see more of that this season. But the show’s thrown out tons of stories that were rooted in organizational and political conflict that would have told us tons about the magical world, cramping the world down to Bon Temps and overstuffing it with characters.
Procedural magic can be more illuminating than long-arc magic, if you don’t have any real ideas about magic and that long arc.
I’m generally in favor of season-long arcs (and shorter seasons), but magic can sometimes be more interesting if you’ve got a new way to use it every week. True Blood tends to hammer the same themes in over and over again: Tommy Mickens is no darn good. Jason Stackhouse is a whore. Sookie has unknown depths. Vampires are not like us. Tara is a perpetual victim. These points are of limited interest in Bon Temps and not of much interest in our world, where sex parties are more likely to be organized by nostalgic nerds in the Hamptons than mythological creatures. And as commenter Eric Killian pointed out in the recap thread yesterday, True Blood tends to throw a new kind of magic in the mix any time the show needs to get the characters out of a jam rather than as a way to explore them from a different angle.
The procedural nature of Charmed means there can be some overstretch, and some weird episodes. But the show was pretty good at magic as metaphor. Warlock vaccine? What happens if we manage to cure something that the majority thinks is a disease but the minority who possesses it as an attribute sees as an asset? Demon who wants to become a priest? Can we outwit our family and genetic legacies through good discipline? Soul-sucking camera? What’s our focus on our looks mean for our mental health? Magical marriage counseling? What would we learn from the past if we had perfect recollection?
There are actual ethics of magic.
True Blood tends to have a pretty hard-core utilitarian approach to magic. Marnie is bad because she goes all power-mad. Vampires are bad if they’re sex-murdering people, less bad if they’re sweet, repressed gay men trading their blood to drug dealers for intimacy. Werewolves are fine if they are hunks of Louisiana delicious, not so good if they order their subordinates to murder your brother. Even the rules the vamps have about not, say, nomming someone on the premises at Fangtasia are oriented more towards outcomes than maintenance of power — it’s all about not getting busted by the cops than about a broader effort at self-control. And to a certain extent, that’s fine: this is a big manaechean struggle between light or darkness, and it’s pretty clear which side everyone’s on, even when they get possessed by evil witches or accidentally rip someone’s heart out. The fun is the external clashes, not the internal struggle.
But rules about the use of power tend to make for more interesting stories. If we’re in a world where we just trust that Sookie won’t use her awesome fairy powers for evil, that doesn’t make for a lot of conflict. On the other hand, if there’s a real risk that Phoebe Halliwell is going to marry the Source of All Evil if she doesn’t watch it, that’s interesting, and a source of ongoing tension and plot lines! This goes hand in hand with the idea that power changes people. If you can’t rely on a totally unchanging character to ensure that you’ll do good things, you have to have structure and rules that you have to adhere to, and sometimes question. It’s more interesting to have skills you have to keep honed, a part of yourself you have to keep walled off to keep that power pure and your own impulses under control, than to just suddenly have Fairy Blasting powers that you don’t have to think about, or hone, or struggle to apply only to good purposes. Magic doesn’t have to be totally explained. But as a deus ex machina that only amps up an already predictable conflict, it drives neither character development, nor plot, nor social questions.
*This one goes out to Tim Carmody and Charlie Jane Anders. They know why.