When it debuted in 1998, "Charmed" was heralded primarily as the return of Shannen Doherty, the temperamental star of Aaron Spelling's "Beverly Hills 90210", marking the renewed harmony between the successful producer and outspoken actress. As the eldest of the "Power of Three" Halliwell sisters, Doherty joined breakout "Picket Fences" star Holly Marie Combs (her real-life best friend), and "Dawson's Creek" alum, Lori Rom, as novice witches discovering an inherited mystic heritage. Unfortunately, after filming the pilot, Rom left for "personal reasons", replaced by "Who's the Boss?" star Alyssa Milano (a former child actress who had become nearly as notorious as Doherty, as an adult, due to an avalanche of nude photo 'captures' from her sexy film roles, flooding the Internet). The pilot was re-filmed with Milano, becoming the series' debut episode.
During the first two seasons, as much time was spent exploring the sisters' personalities as in their magical powers, as audiences embraced Prue, Piper, and Phoebe. With only a handwritten 'Book of Shadows' to guide them, confrontations with some truly frightening demons could be both spectacular and suspenseful. A wonderful supporting cast was introduced, including Jennifer Rhodes, as the very 'hip' spirit of their grandmother, James Read, as their mortal, estranged father, Finola Hughes, as the ghost of their mother, and Dorian Gregory, as their loyal, if nervous, police 'contact'. For many fans, these seasons offered the series' best episodes.
However, by Season Three, rifts had developed between Doherty, producer Brad Kern, and Milano, fueled, in part, by Milano's more interesting plot line, and greater rapport with cast, crew, and press. Piper and the Charmed Ones' angelic 'White Liter' protector, Leo Wyatt (Brian Krause) fell into an expressly forbidden love, and Phoebe embarked on a tempestuous and even more dangerous affair with half-demon Cole Turner (Julian McMahon), in a storyline that brought in huge ratings, but cost the participation of series creator, Constance Burge, who disliked a second male-oriented plot line, and departed. Doherty would leave the series at the end of the season, as Prue died, protecting an innocent.
Prue's death resulted in some of the series' best moments, as the two surviving sisters dealt with their loss, and the apparent 'end' of the "Power of Three". Then a previously unknown 'half sister', Paige (portrayed by another notorious media celebrity, Rose McGowan), arrived on the scene, the offspring of an earlier 'White Liter'/Witch union, involving their mother. Spontaneous, awkward, yet sweet-natured, Paige was embraced quickly by Phoebe, more slowly by Piper, and learned her magical skills.
The series spun off in new directions, some successful, some silly, over the next three seasons, incorporating myths, fairy tales, and legends from a variety of cultures. In the central story lines, Phoebe's affair with Cole, culminating in a demonic 'wedding', eventually ended when Cole, again corrupted by evil, was vanquished by Phoebe in an alternate future he had created; Piper and Leo, after a convoluted courtship, married, receiving a grudging 'blessing' from the Elders (Earth's magical 'protectors', and Leo's 'bosses'), and they had a son, Wyatt, who would be destined to become the most powerful witch, ever.
In Season Six, a new 'White Liter' from the future, Chris (Drew Fuller), was introduced, and it would be revealed that he was actually Leo and Piper's SECOND son (a plot device that took into account Combs' real-life pregnancy), on a suicide mission to prevent Wyatt from turning evil. In the poignant 'finale' episode, the adult Chris 'dies', just as he is being 'born'.
In Season Seven, Leo was promoted to the Elders, but was wooed away from them by a seemingly omnipotent race, the Avatars; he ultimately aided the Charmed Ones to defeat them, was demoted into becoming mortal and powerless, but 'allowed' to live in 'peace' with Piper; Phoebe had a brief, bittersweet affair with a charming 'reformed' demon (Billy Zane), sent by the spirit of long-gone Cole Turner (McMahon, in a surprise appearance), now serving penitence time in Limbo; and Paige mourned the loss of her first 'real' love, FBI agent Kyle Brody (Kerr Smith)...but a VERY public confrontation with Homeland Security, during an epic battle with demon Zankou (Oded Fehr), in the Season Seven finale, forced the sisters to stage their own 'deaths', and assume new appearances and identities.
Suffering declining ratings, "Charmed" was very nearly canceled in Season Seven, but was given a reprieve, offering loyal fans hope for a more satisfying finale to the series. Sadly, much of Season Eight was largely disappointing. Budgetary constraints forced Leo to 'disappear' for most of the season; an annoying novice witch, Billie Jenkins (Kaley Cuoco) became a 'regular'; and loose ends were tied up far too quickly and cheaply. Billie's rescue of her long-lost sister, in the Underworld, was referred to but NEVER filmed(!); Paige met, dated, and quickly married a parole officer (Ivan Sergei); and Phoebe, in an increasingly annoying "Love Quest" subplot, finally found her soul mate in a 'new' Cupid (Victor Webster).
Fortunately, everything 'jelled' in the final two episodes; Billie and her long-lost sister, Christy (Marne Patterson), who had been secretly trained by the revived evil Triad, aligned against the Sisters, resulting in the season's MAJOR confrontation, destroying nearly everything, and forcing Piper (and the returned Leo) to journey into the past and future, in the finale, to straighten things out, and provide the series a happy ending.
Despite the marked decline in quality over the last few seasons, "Charmed" will be fondly remembered for it's exceptional cast, often exciting story lines, and 'magic' it possessed, at it's peak. Setting the record as the longest-running female-lead dramatic series, it's place in television history is secure!