The original Charmed, which ran from 1998 to 2006, featured quite a bit of changes throughout its run. Most notably, the unceremonious exit of Shannen Doherty after Season 3 and, subsequently, the introduction of Rose McGowan as the Halliwells’ long-lost sister Paige. But when Doherty’s Prue Halliwell was killed off, the show lost more than just the eldest sister.
So much of the appeal (or charm, if you will) of Charmed left with her. Even if you love both Prue and Paige (as I do, for many different reasons), it’s undeniable that the show was stronger all-around during the Prue years (Seasons 1-3) than the Paige years (Seasons 4-8).
The Trios of Sisters
One of the strongest aspects was the bond of sisterhood being the focal point of the entire show with Prue, Piper (Holly Marie Combs), and Phoebe (Alyssa Milano). When Charmed premiered, it was a story about three sisters who happen to be witches. Having grown up together, even at their worst moments, they loved one another. Despite Prue and Phoebe’s constant bickering as the eldest and youngest sisters, with Piper relegated as mediator as the middle child, there was never any doubt that pure love was shared between them. The emotions over potentially losing a sister felt earned and devastatingly real, as we watched on many occasions, like on “From Fear to Eternity” when Barbas uses the sisters’ fear over losing each other against them.
That’s why, when Prue died, Piper and Phoebe’s unending grief over losing their sister was so raw and touching. The relationships between these sisters held real weight and it always felt like we were watching sisters conquer the magical world.
With Paige, however, the show became about three witches who happen to be sisters. Paige never got past feeling like Piper and Phoebe’s long-lost sister, so the show leaned in on their magical connection instead. Was there strong love between them? Definitely. Paige’s introduction to the family was done so well on Charmed Season 4. The bond quickly developed between them, but it never stood a chance compared to Prue, Piper, and Phoebe’s. After all, the girls had gone through almost three decades of life without knowing Paige. How could it feel real?
It didn’t help that practically as soon as Paige was introduced to the family, Piper was having children. Not enough time was spent on developing the sisters’ relationship. Instead, it jumps from Paige being half a Halliwell to Wyatt taking all of Piper and Phoebe’s attention.
Paige never really had a chance to fit, but matters were only made worse with the occasions where there was a decision to make between saving two sisters. For Piper and Phoebe, it was a no-brainer. They always found a way to save everyone, but it was beyond clear that Piper and Phoebe would save each other over Paige. We watched this happen on “Y Tu Mummy También” as Piper had to make the choice between Phoebe and Paige.
The show quite literally addresses this and makes it out to be such a rational decision, but doesn’t seem to ever contemplate the consequences of that as to how Paige fits into the family. Even in the series’ penultimate episode, “Kill Billie Vol. 2,” after the manor explodes in the Charmed Ones’ fight with Billie and Christy, Piper runs for Phoebe and holds her body after she dies. It isn’t until several moments later, when Piper hears a cough, that she even thinks about Paige. (Spoiler alert: It isn’t Paige, and Piper doesn’t look for her in the rubble either.)
Overall, the sisterhood, arguably the most important aspect of the show, is much stronger with Prue. It felt like a show about sisters, the good and the bad. The bond is so well done and believable, which is incredible considering all of the rumors about behind-the-scenes issues that led to Doherty’s exit.
Being the Charmed Ones in the Real World
Another of Charmed’s appeals was the basic element of watching the sisters’ lives play out in San Francisco. There are moments with Paige where the show does this, and it does get better off and on throughout, but it’s nothing compared to how the show incorporated the city with Prue. The girls would actually go out and about in San Francisco to stop demons and save the day.
So many of their scenes were in the real world, which added to the “three sisters who happen to be witches” element of the early seasons. We watched Prue, Piper, and Phoebe genuinely explore their lives, romances, and careers (or schooling/lack of a career in Phoebe’s case) in the city. The characters all felt much more well-rounded in the Prue years, too. Their focus was split in several directions, from love to the Charmed One duties. Every aspect of them was delved into in some way, depicting the characters as incredibly deep individuals.
In later seasons, the Paige years, the sisters start to feel a bit two-dimensional. Their focus falls on one thing, usually, and the story is always about magic interfering with that. For Piper, it’s her desire to have a normal life. For Phoebe, her obsession with finding love and having a baby. For Paige, it’s magic, in one way or another. All of their stories are limited by their one-track minds.
From Season 5 onward, more and more of the show takes place in isolated locations (and on in-house sets). The sisters face demons in the Underworld far too often, and once magic school is introduced, so much of the show takes place in those halls. Or, everything is stuck in the Halliwell household. It didn’t feel like a show that focused on anything except magic for a while there, which was disappointing.
Aside from the lacking sisterhood element, the elements involving magic suffered without Prue as well. Vanquishing demons started to feel more like a sport later on in the show, and so often the demon-of-the-week stories were dragged out to fill an episode when Piper could have simply used her molecular acceleration power (and often does).
With Prue, vanquishing demons was actually difficult. The girls didn’t have a simple solution, like Piper’s ability to blow things up (until the end of Season 3). They had to put actual work into things, like creating spells and potions. Above all, what was lacking was the quality fight scenes with the girls and demons. With Phoebe and Prue being learned in martial arts, they’d often have great showdowns to save the day, such as Prue’s fight with Vinceres on “Primrose Empath” or Prue and Phoebe using their physical abilities to wrestle with demons on Season 3, episode 12.
Due to Piper’s refusal to learn kickboxing and Paige’s in-show reason for not being able to learn (as a half-Whitelighter, she was half pacifist), we eventually stopped seeing great fight sequences. Even Phoebe, who spent much of the early seasons kicking demon ass, stops fighting very often toward the end because there’s no real reason for her to with Piper and Paige’s offensive powers.
How ‘Charmed’ Specifically Failed Paige
One of the major downfalls with Paige was, at the beginning of Season 5, having her give up her promotion to social worker and become a full-time witch. We missed out on valuable opportunities to watch Paige explore her career, as we did with the other sisters. And, instead of feeling like another Charmed One, she felt like she was off in her own magical world.
Piper and Phoebe were both so focused on love and life, so all of the magical duties fell to Paige. It isolated her from her sisters even more, and just increased how much she didn’t fit quite right with her sisters. Instead of trying to rectify this, the writers excuse this mistake by saying Paige is just independent and too used to being an only child, needing to be independent from her sisters. But isn’t this supposed to be a show about sisters?
Altogether, Charmed felt much more grounded with Prue than with Paige. The Paige seasons are still enjoyable… in different ways. There is a reason the show went on for five seasons without Prue, even if the initial appeal of the series slowly disappeared. But things kind of went off of the rails there, particularly during Seasons 5-7. Season 4 follows more of the path that the show took with Prue with some large exceptions before things were shaken up entirely.
As for Season 8, it felt like the show finally realized that things didn’t have to change so dramatically when Doherty left and was starting to pull things together again. Taking magic school out of the equation for the sisters led to fans seeing more of the girls exploring their lives as women instead of witches, a central element to the season, and there was more demonic activity in the streets of San Francisco (even if that changed to the scenery on the Warner Brothers’ backlot used for shows like Gilmore Girls and Pretty Little Liars).
What made the show so special in the beginning was lost with Prue’s exit. The charm of the relationship between the sisters with Prue, how magic was utilized and intertwined within their lives, and feeling like a show set in the real world brought in viewers. If the show had been handled better during the Paige years, it likely could’ve been just as successful in every way… except maybe the sisterhood. There was no real way to get past that long-lost sister trope.
All eight seasons of Charmed are streaming on Peacock.
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