Charmed (Unaired)

Blogging about the Charmed pilot, “Something Wicca This Way Comes,” has been on my to-do list for some time, but how much more fun is it to cover the unaired pilot? It’s available on YouTube (legally or not I couldn’t say).

In a nutshell, Charmed is the story of the Haliwell sisters, Phoebe, Piper (Holly Marie Combs) and Prue (Shannen Doherty), who learn that they are witches, each with a unique power.

The setup in this version of the pilot is identical. Some of the footage looks to be the same as what aired. Two sisters living in their dead grandmother’s San Francisco house are joined by their third, black sheep sister returned from New York. In the meantime, a detective is trying to solve a series of murders of young women. These events are set against the backdrop of a raging thunderstorm, lending an air of foreboding.

The most unmistakable difference is that Phoebe, the youngest sister, is played not by Alyssa Milano but by Lori Rom, who went on to play a recurring role on Party of Five. This Phoebe is more down-to-earth, lacking the perkiness Milano brought to the role. The trick to Phoebe is that we, the audience, have to like her even though she annoys the heck out of Prue. She needs an impishness that Rom doesn’t pull off. Rom dresses dumpier too; the costumers later made the most of Milano’s hot bod.

Phoebe drives the action throughout the story, so it was important to get the casting right. Her curious nature catalyzes the discoveries that bring the sisters their powers. She is the only one brave enough to venture into the attic when directed there by a spirit board. She recites the incantation that instills the powers, and she continues to read the Book of Shadows and educate her sisters about witchcraft. As the Phoebe character is described, “She has no vision, no sense of the future.” This observation is one of many examples of ironic foreshadowing in the pilot, since Phoebe gains the power to see visions of the future.

In both versions, character introductions and exposition evolve pretty naturally, with one glaring exception. Phoebe asks Piper, “I’m glad you’re still with Jeremy. Where did you meet him anyway?” The answer hints at the “twist” to come, wherein Jeremy is a warlock specifically preying on the sisters. It’s not particularly surprising when he pulls a knife (an athame) on Piper in an abandoned building.

What I’ve never understood about this pilot—this version or the final one—is why they try so hard to be truthful to what Wicca is all about while at the same time making it so far-fetched. Both versions open with an anonymous woman setting up an alter and calling the gods/goddesses to oversee a ritual. The writers explain to us what at athame is and make a point of explaining the Wiccan rede and that witches are not evil—obviously important if we’re to sympathize with the protagonists. This point is subtly different between the two versions, actually. In the unaired pilot, Phoebe says, “A true witch is a good witch,” and in the aired pilot she says, instead, “A witch can be either good or evil.” Either way, the powers of the witch in the opening, and the Haliwell witches, are the stuff of science fiction.

  There are some details missing from the unaired version—tattoos on the murder victims,—and some things that are done better. In the unaired version, Phoebe’s bike accident makes her look foolish, reminiscent of Stacy in Wayne’s World. Prue’s conversation with Detective Andy Trudeau is much shorter, giving less basis for their future relationship. The aired version contains some back story about the Haliwells’ father; Prue doesn’t like him, and only Phoebe is still in touch with him. Basically, the aired version gives more information to build on for the future.

In the end, the women have to overcome their various levels of skepticism about witchcraft and stand together—literally—chanting about “the power of three.” This climactic scene embodies the theme of the whole show, that the three (never mind that one of them gets replaced) have to learn to count on each other.

Happy Halloween!

Beverly Hills 90210

Forget that mellow-drama running on the CW called simply 90210. This is where it all began. The pilot for Beverly Hills 90210 opens with a typical pilot premise: It’s the first day of school. Two teens, Brandon (Jason Preistley) and Brenda (Shannen Doherty) Walsh are waking up, getting dressed, and preparing to face a new start in a new town. As we learn in some awkward but mercifully brief exposition, they’re from Minnesota. Dad got a new job, and the family moved to Beverly Hills.

We notice a few things right away. Kids from Minnesota get along with their siblings. Teenagers are slobs universally. And the 80s lasted at least until fall of 1990.

The opening credits are endless by today’s standards, comprising a montage of rich kids doing rich kid stuff. Brenda caps it with, “I think we’re going to need a raise in our allowance.” The one small twist is the chick getting off of a City bus. She’s got serious girl hair and glasses, so we know she’s smart. She’s kind of a bitch, too, when Brandon goes to her to offer his talent writing for the student paper, which she edits. Her name’s Andrea, and she’s set up to be either Brandon’s love interest or nemesis.

Brenda instantly befriends Kelly (Jennie Garth), the quintessential SoCal girl with white blond hair and a recent nose job. Kelly emphasizes to Brenda that this is “definitely not your normal high school.” I have to wonder, how would she know? This line sounds more like it’s directed at the networks asked to pick up the show than to the character Brenda. But, despite the underscoring of everything that makes West Beverly so unique, it’s refreshing to see how decidedly normal these kids were in Season 1. The freshmen are awkward. The girls worry about their weight. The jocks pick on the weaklings.

Brandon and Brenda are really likeable characters. They’re a little unsure of themselves, but far more secure than their Beverly Hills counterparts. Loveably down-to-earth. I love when a hot girl asks Brandon what he’s wearing that smells so good and he replies, “Tide?”

The obligatory party scene gives us all we need to know about the key players. Steve Sanders (Ian Ziering) looks like he came straight from playing the rich asshole in a John Hughes movie. The optimistic freshman David (baby-faced Brian Austin Green) provides some comic relief. And the poor little rich girl, Maryann, flirts shamelessly with Brandon. (And, WTF, are those people in the background of this scene playing tennis?) What is surprising, with the benefit of hindsight, is how little we hear out of Donna (Tori Spelling). She’s little more than Jenny Garth’s shadow.

A word must be said about the clothes. At the time this aired I’m sure they were the height of fashion. But today, whoo! Let’s hear it for blazers with shorts. And the hair! What is the semi-mullet thing Brandon is sporting?

By the end of the pilot we know everyone we need to know, save for one… Dylan is yet to be introduced. We pretty much know what we’re in for, and it’s got a nice blend of drama and humor. One wonders how this show morphed into a soap opera dealing with drug overdoses and whatever else went on in the later years. Not to mention the CW nonsense.