Spoiler alert: Plot details ahead for both Charmed and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
Even though we’re deep into the era of reboots, October 2018 has been extra. Within the last couple of weeks, two iconic witch shows from the ’90s have been rebooted for a modern audience. For better or worse, both Charmed and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina feel like 2018 versions of the television we loved as kids.
And because it’s 2018, it seems like no show can be complete without at least a bit of political commentary. In fact, the new Charmed was specifically marketed as including a feminist storyline which Holly Marie Combs, who played Piper in the original series, took issue with because it implies that the original series wasn’t feminist enough.
Guess we forgot to do that the first go around. Hmph. https://t.co/kDXLBefuSG
— Holly Marie Combs (@H_Combs) January 26, 2018
The political perspective added to both Charmed and Sabrina works in some parts — at other times, both shows fall flat. Broadly, the witch narrative — namely, the historical persecution of witchcraft — has been used as an allegory for marginalized experiences, especially for women and queer folks, and that’s a thread that carries through in these interpretations as well.
From the first few episodes of the new Charmed, the writing lays the politics on thick, and it’s to the show’s detriment. One of the subplots of the Charmed pilot is a professor returning to work after being accused of sexual harassment by one of his students who is now in a coma. By the end of the episode, it’s discovered that he is actually a demon and the sisters vanquish him. It’s a little on the nose, I think, but it’s fine — I’m totally down with the “Death To The Harassers” theme.
The real problem comes from just how often the show decides to reference our current political system. They reference Trump; they joke about fake news and incels. Even though it’s just debuted, it ages the show. It feels cheap.
A popular criticism that feminist, queer, and POC activists have against moderate Democrats is that they often talk as if oppression started with the election of Donald Trump. Meanwhile, people who are marginalized know that that’s not the case, because they’ve seen or experienced injustice or being othered long before November 2016. The new Charmed feels like it was written by one of those moderates, which is especially odd with three women of color as leads, including one who is queer.
Even the feminism of the show, which comes mostly in the form of Mel, the middle sister, comes across almost as a parody. The jokes are often strange and outdated. Almost every time Harry, the sister’s whitelighter (protector and teacher), is in a scene with Mel, she makes a joke about him being a controlling white man. In last Sunday’s episode, while Harry and Mel are in a bit of a fight, he offers to help her carry something and she says “I don’t need a big strong man,” which sounds like it’s straight out of an SNL caricature from 2002.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina takes a different approach to politics that works much better. In the first episode, Sabrina’s close friend, Susie, is being bullied by the school’s football team. Susie isn’t explicitly given a label, but the character reads as queer and the actor Lachlan Watson is non-binary. Driven by a desire to help Susie, Sabrina and her friends start a club on campus dedicated to women supporting women (called W.I.C.C.A.). From the show’s very beginning, we see our protagonist’s politics from the way she reacts to her friend being bullied. This isn’t a metaphor for Trump, the bully-in-chief. It gets to be about Susie and Sabrina, which feels great.
Another plot thread that is picked up fairly early is that Sabrina’s other friend, Ros, is frustrated the school has banned certain books that they deemed inappropriate, including Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Their new group, W.I.C.C.A., decides to become a book club so that Ros would have the opportunity to read some of the banned books.
A big difference in how Charmed and Sabrina handle talking about politics and marginalization has to do with scope. Charmed makes commentary on problems specific to our current government; Sabrina feels more intimate. Part of this scope difference comes from the vague setting of Sabrina that feels as 1950s as it does 2018. It would be weird to acknowledge a particular political issue going on right now, so they don’t have to.
In the most recent episode of Charmed, both Mel and the oldest sister Macy have moments where they talk about their own experiences with marginalization. Macy has a moment with Maggie, the youngest sister, where she discusses being one of the only non-white students in her boarding school growing up and how that impacted her identity. She talked about how she had to be firm in herself so other kids wouldn’t label her, and that’s made her really insecure to act any other way.
Mel has a conversation with Harry about the difficult parts of being a witch. She said that her mom always knew she was gay, even before she did, so she never had to be in the closet growing up. But now, because she couldn’t tell anyone about being a witch, she’s being forced into the closet. If Charmed continues with these more intimate moments, especially speaking about oppression through the allegory of witches, it’ll be in a better place.
With the culture of reboots still thriving, we might see some other female-driven stories in the years to come — the Buffy reboot is already in the works with a Black lead. I hope the creators of any new projects are looking at both Charmed and Sabrina to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. We as the audience don’t need to see reminders of our enemy; we know what we’re fighting. Instead, what we want is to be reminded of who we’re fighting with and who we’re fighting for.