Strange Powers

Flights of fancy return to Fantasy Island; Charmed casts a spell for the sisterhood.

But here's a better idea: What if McDaniel's son started liking Marilyn Manson? What if he didn't want more attention from Dad? What if not all of the answers were so easy? And what if Mr. Roarke's power were more arbitrary, less attuned to repairing bad parenting and faulty self-images? But of course that's not what we want from magic realism. For the most part, white Americans lack a history in which the fabric of reality is so easily torn: Our truest magic realists are either out on the political fringes, babbling about black helicopters, the ZOG, and The Turner Diaries; or they're African Americans trying to make sense of the slave past as in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon or Charles Johnson's Middle Passage. Given that history, why be surprised by Mr. Roarke's fundamentally pedagogical intentions: "If things come too easily, no one learns anything"? With luck, Fantasy Island will eventually work up the nerve to become less cuddly.

The only place where cuddliness isn't a problem is in teen shows. Buffy has taught us that horror is the most appropriate genre for high school, and that teens' volcanic emotional upheavals make them a natural audience for magic realism. The WB's Charmed (Wednesday, 8 p.m.)--or, let's be honest, The Craft: The Series--is similarly girl-friendly, grasping the appeal of witchery as good girls' chance to be freaky without sacrificing their souls. (I have to admit, however, to being puzzled that the theme song is a remake of the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?" which is generally taken as a hymn to gay self-loathing.)

In any case, the lure here is Shannen Doherty, back home on the box after an abortive film career, but still doing her best Brenda Walsh. (Sadly, she won't be joining an equally chastened Luke Perry who will be returning to his old ZIP code in a few weeks.) A TV-sized diva--Susan Lucci for slackers--Doherty plays against type as the eldest and most practical of three sisters who share an enormous house with equally enormous yard in San Francisco (clearly the most fanciful part of the show) and abruptly discover that they share magical powers.

Sometimes good guys don't wear white: Malcolm McDowell's Mr. Roarke, joined by his assistant Ariel (Mädchen Amick), leaves the white suit--and Tattoo--behind
Sometimes good guys don't wear white: Malcolm McDowell's Mr. Roarke, joined by his assistant Ariel (Mädchen Amick), leaves the white suit--and Tattoo--behind

Although the meta-joke's not bad--will Doherty and co-star Alyssa Milano be able to reanimate dead small-screen careers after failing as big-screen sex symbols?--the show itself gets at something very unusual...perhaps intentionally. For if TV knows what to do with parents and what to do with kids, it's still unsure about everything in between. We have the 20s and 30s as coed dorm (Friends and its innumerable clones), high school writ large (Seinfeld), or the period when life centers around your surrogate family at work (shows too numerous to name). But Charmed seems to be groping for an honest vision of many young women's 20s like that conjured by Ally McBeal--an untrustworthy cosmos in which bosses can suddenly devolve into pigs; well-behaved boyfriends into raging monsters (on the pilot, one sister's guy turned out to be a warlock murdering witches around the city to gain their powers); and apparently steady jobs into memories.

The best parts of the first episode mixed magic and, well, realism in equal measure to illustrate how special powers might help one to exact revenge upon a sexist boss who took credit for an employee's work or to pass a demanding chef's audition. In these moments, Charmed touches the emotional heart of a demographic too young for the Lifetime channel and too hip for Touched by an Angel, but hungry for fantasy all the same. Call it Liz Phair's (or Lilith Fair's) America. When all three main characters get together and zap the Evil Boyfriend, their release feels as much metaphorical as literal. Sisterhood, as they used to say, is powerful. Here's hoping Charmed isn't afraid to play out that slogan for all it's worth.

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