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Buffy The Vampire SlayerIs Charmed Better Than Buffy ?
By Robert A. Black
Monday 17 February 2003, by Webmaster
This week marks a very special milestone for a long-running TV show. You know the one I mean - that one with the red-haired witch who dresses funny but is a quick study in the magical arts?
Of course I’m talking about the WB’s Charmed, which reaches its landmark 100th episode this Sunday. Which show did you think I was talking about?
Oh, right. Buffy.
If you’d come to me two years ago and told me that I’d ever be writing about how much better Charmed is than Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I’d probably have laughed in your face. If you’d come to me one year ago, I might not have laughed, but I still wouldn’t have believed you. I was there when Buffy first premiered. I was a fan of the show and of the creative team behind it for years. Charmed was this other show that I always described as "shamelessly goofy" - I still describe that way, in fact. But Charmed has always played for real when it mattered, and as the years have gone by and the episodes of both Charmed and Buffy have accumulated, I now believe that Charmed has emerged as the better show.
Why do I say that? Here are ten good reasons why:
1) Charmed is consistent with its witchcraft - I don’t know much about the real religion of Wicca, but I’m told that at least one expert on the subject has praised the way Wicca and magic are portrayed on Charmed. Even to my untrained eye, it looks like the people at Charmed have done their homework. Regardless of how accurate the show really is, there’s a definite "magical paradigm," a solid structure behind the stories and plot elements. The Charmed Ones’ powers follow a specific set of rules. They grow and develop along fairly logical lines. And this magical paradigm has remained more or less consistent through the course of the series. The people running the show haven’t started contradicting themselves or introducing new elements from out of nowhere.
Meanwhile, on Buffy it’s been obvious for years that when it comes to magic, the show is making everything up as it goes. Simply look at the way Willow’s powers have been treated - in Season 4 magic was a metaphor for her lesbian relationship with Tara, but by Season 6 it had instead become a blatant symbol for drug addiction. At the beginning of Season 7, Willow’s magic had changed again. It had become "a part of her," whatever that was supposed to mean. But since the start of the season, her magic has continued to change, apparently at the whims of the show’s writing staff. There’s no telling what it will be like next.
2) On Charmed, people of color survive longer than one season - There have been very few recurring African-American characters on Buffy, and most of them have died within a few episodes. At this point, the survival record goes to Season 4’s Initiative member Forrest Gates, who was killed in his tenth episode and then had his reanimated body blown up in his eleventh episode. Giles’s girlfriend Olivia made it out of Sunnydale alive, but she only appeared in three episodes - and one of those was in a dream sequence. And as for characters who were Latino or Asian or some other ethnic minority in America, forget it. There have barely been any at all, and none have remained on the show for more than an episode or two.
On the other hand, African-American character Darryl Morris first appeared in the opening scenes of the Charmed pilot, and he’s still there one hundred episodes later. Paige’s boss was also African- American, and at the time Paige quit her job he was still alive and well. Other people of color have come and gone on the show from time to time - some have been evil and some have died, but no more often than that’s been true of white characters.
3) On Charmed, Good has a role to play - Joss Whedon recently described the main character of his short-lived series Firefly this way: "He’s a guy who looks into the void and sees nothing but the void — and says there is no moral structure, there is no help, no one’s coming, no one gets it, I have to do it." This same attitude has also crept into the Buffy universe over the years. In the beginning of the series, it was established that a Slayer like Buffy has a Watcher - a whole Council of Watchers, actually - to help her in her fight against evil. But in later years the Council has been inexplicably absent, and in fact now they’ve been destroyed. But is this realistic? In Season 6, Giles simply decided to leave, and instead of sending a replacement the Council apparently thought it best to let Buffy bumble around on her own until her incompetence brought the world to the brink of destruction. Granted, Buffy probably wouldn’t have accepted a new Watcher, but couldn’t we have seen the resulting conflict on the show? Was it really better to watch Buffy turn into an aimless antihero walking around in a fog?
Meanwhile, on Charmed the forces of Good are always there and always available to provide help and guidance. Sometimes they come off looking like a bunch of slackers - how many times has Leo gone to "check with the Elders" and come back with useless information? - but the fact remains that they’re there. The Charmed Ones have a place in the grand scheme of things. They’re a part of a battle that’s much larger than they are, the struggle between the forces of Good and Evil. They’ve remained free of the conceited notion that the entire battle begins and ends with themselves.
4) On Charmed, death is real - It’s funny to say that about a show where all three of the main characters die and come back on a regular basis, but it’s true. Like everything else on the show, there’s the kind of character death where they’re just kidding and the kind of character death where they’re playing for real. When Prue died at the end of Season 3, it mattered. The characters actually grieved for an extended time. Even now, a season and a half later, there are still references to missing her, and Paige still feels the weight of having to fill her shoes. Likewise, there are still references to the Charmed Ones feeling the losses of their various parents, even though those events took place many years in the past.
Compare that to the Buffy characters who have died. Jenny Calendar was brought back only to manipulate Giles and torture Angel. Joyce only appears when Buffy is psychotic or when Buffy and Dawn need to be manipulated. Hardly anyone has even mentioned Tara’s name since her death, but plans were in the works to have her come back - so that she could torture Willow. Only Amber Benson’s refusal to play the role prevented such a scene from being filmed. The pattern on Buffy is clear - unless it’s time to inflict pain, dead characters don’t exist. It’s as if they were never there.
5) On Charmed, heroes have lives, too - All four of the Charmed Ones have had real lives that we’ve been able to see. Piper owns a nightclub, and before that she was a chef. Phoebe finished college and is now an advice columnist. Prue was an art appraiser and a photographer. Paige was a social worker before she gave it up to be a witch full-time - but even that change is something that’s been explored over multiple episodes. On Buffy, ever since the characters left school it’s been as if they existed in a vacuum. We see the people and places of Sunnydale, but we don’t really know much about them, because we rarely see any kind of meaningful interaction between the main characters and their surroundings. It’s as if all of Sunnydale is nothing but a painted backdrop to keep the audience from seeing the technical equipment backstage.
6) On Charmed, we know who the heroes are fighting for - Most of the time, the Charmed Ones are called to protect one or more "innocents," and we in the audience get to know these people in the course of an episode. We get to see how the innocents are threatened, and why it’s important to save them. We get to see how the Charmed Ones help these people with their lives. When an innocent does end up dying, the Charmed Ones take the loss hard - it’s always one of the character deaths that the show plays for real. On the other hand, we rarely get to know anything about the people Buffy and her friends save. They’re almost always generic characters that we see for no more than a couple of minutes - just more of the painted backdrop that is Sunnydale. It’s interesting to note that two of the exceptions - two "innocents" that we got to know in greater detail - were not so innocent after all. In fact, they came back to the show as Buffy’s enemies - Warren and Jonathan.
7) On Charmed, relationships can succeed, or at least can end well - On Buffy it’s a well-known fact that all romantic relationships end badly. Joss Whedon’s explanation is that if the characters are happy the story will get boring. But that’s not the case on Charmed. Piper and Leo have been together since the first season. The fact that they’ve gotten married hasn’t made their relationship boring - it simply means that they now have different challenges to face than they did when they were dating. As for other relationships, it’s true that Prue’s relationship with Andy ended with Andy’s death, but even so they were given an affirming final goodbye scene - and Andy never came back to torture Prue. And then there’s Phoebe and Cole - a relationship that’s dysfunctional, but Phoebe knows it’s dysfunctional and has been trying to move beyond it. How well she succeeds is something we’ll find out very shortly.
8) On Charmed, morality counts - Let’s take a closer look at the relationship between Phoebe and Cole, and compare it to a parallel relationship on Buffy, the one between Buffy and Spike. Cole is very much a tragic figure. No matter how much he tries to love Phoebe, the fact remains that he belongs to the forces of evil and Phoebe belongs to the forces of good. It gives him a mindset that’s incompatible with the Wiccan rules and ways that Phoebe lives by, and it causes him to do things that only drive Phoebe away. With Buffy and Spike, on the other hand, it’s hard to tell who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy, who’s in love and who’s merely indulging selfish passions, who’s using the other and who’s being selfless. And the reason it’s so hard to tell is because there’s simply no answer to be found. Without a moral compass, anyone can be anything at any given time, with no consistency or reason to them. Even the Buffy producers have disagreed about what the relationship really means, and that leaves most viewers seeing nothing but a confused mess.
9) On Charmed, characters remain true to themselves - Continuing with the relationship between Phoebe and Cole, let’s examine another aspect of the story, Phoebe’s temptation to join the dark side. Phoebe makes her decision to be with Cole as Phoebe. She does it because she loves Cole, and she honestly believes that her love is capable of bridging the gap between them. As a result, she ends up trying to fulfill her role as a Charmed One fighting demons while at the same time refusing to vanquish those demons because they work for her husband. Since morality counts on Charmed, both Good Leo and Evil Cole tell her she has to choose sides, and she ends up choosing Good because that’s who she is.
Compare that to another witch tempted to the dark side, Willow in Season 6 of Buffy. First it looks like Willow is lured by the temptations of the power she wields. Then suddenly that power becomes a transparent symbol for addictive drugs. When Willow goes off the deep end and assumes her dark magic persona, is she willingly indulging in dark powers or is she just a junkie unable to control an addiction? Is she responsible for her actions or not? Just as with the Buffy/Spike relationship, not even Buffy’s producers were able to answer that question with any clarity. Now in Season 7, the relationship between Willow and her magic - and the character of Willow herself, actually - is something that changes from week to week according to the writing team’s whims.
10) The richer texture of Charmed provides more story opportunities - One of the big problems that Buffy has suffered from is a lack of credible villains for Buffy to fight. Once she defeated a god in Season 5, what was left for her to do? On the other hand, last season on Charmed, the Charmed Ones defeated "the Source of all Evil" not once, but three times, and yet ended the season by facing off against a completely different and very human foe.
What makes the difference? Buffy apparently knows how to tell only one story. The "Big Bad" of the year emerges and Buffy faces off against it in steadily more intense battles until the season-ending near-apocalypse leads to its defeat. The only time they didn’t try that formula was in Season 6, which has been widely branded a disaster, and even then they still couldn’t do without the season-ending near-apocalypse.
Because the Charmed Ones have more real lives, with more real relationships in a more real setting, protecting the lives of more real "innocents," there are more opportunities for interesting stories. The Charmed Ones may be able to handle "the Source of all Evil," but can they handle childbirth? They may be able to deal with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but can they deal with a barrage of lawsuits? The richer texture means the audience is left wondering what will come next, instead of simply trying to recognize the latest version of the same old plot elements plugged into the same old formula.
Underlying these ten points, and the difference between Buffy and Charmed overall, I think, is that Charmed has never forgotten that it’s a TV show. In order for a TV show to survive in the long run, there has to be a mixture of light and dark, comic and serious. A show needs to keep developing its characters and its surroundings, bringing in new ideas, new settings, and different challenges. Charmed has done that. Buffy has not. Especially in the last two or three years, Buffy has seemed to get smaller, shrinking down around the core characters and their drawn-out internal problems while everything around them fades into a murky background. It’s as if the show is being boiled down until only the Joss Whedon message - "there is no moral structure, there is no help, no one’s coming, no one gets it, I have to do it" - is all that remains. And as Buffy has diminished, Charmed has overtaken it, so that in the end the "shamelessly goofy" show is the one that has prevailed.
So here’s to Charmed on its 100th episode. May their second 100 episodes be more successful than Buffy’s have been.
Postscript Now that I’ve seen "Centennial Charmed," I’m struck by my sense of timing, because the show has Buffy echoes everywhere. Michelle Branch appears and sings exactly the same song as when she appeared on Buffy. The cemetery where Leo takes Paige is the Rosedale Cemetery in mid-city LA, a spot Buffy has used regularly for years. And the story premise is reminiscent of the Buffy Season 3 episode "The Wish," where Cordelia wishes that Buffy had never come to Sunnydale.
Now, before you accuse Brad Kern of ripping off Marti Noxon, let me point out that I could just as easily accuse Marti Noxon of ripping off the team that wrote "Yesterday’s Enterprise" on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I could then accuse them of ripping off It’s a Wonderful Life, etc. etc. There’s no such thing as a unique story premise. What matters is how that story premise is played out, and that’s where the difference between Charmed and Buffy becomes glaringly obvious.
In "Centennial Charmed," the three Charmed Ones reunite in the alternate universe and triumph over evil.
In "The Wish," alternate-Buffy and her alternate-friends kill each other in a meaningless fight. I say "meaningless" because Giles is the one who saves the day, and he’s off somewhere else doing something completely unrelated.
That difference says it all.
Robert A. Black was on the writing staff of Nickelodeon’s You Can’t Do That On Television in the 80s,and has won multiple online awards for his Buffy fan fiction. His first book, a children’s historical novel,will be published later in 2003.
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