For a 90s baby like myself, Sabrina The Teenage Witch was essential viewing. The sitcom ran for seven seasons on two different networks. It remains one of the best loved 90s sitcoms to this day. When The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina was announced, fans of the sitcom were up in arms over it. The darker take from Riverdale showrunner and Archie Comics CCO Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, however, does not take inspiration from the 90s sitcom but from the horror comic of the same name (also penned by Aguirre-Sacasa).
Rather than the dark shock of Riverdale from the traditional teen drama of Archie, the new Netflix series takes its source material and tries to make it a bit more family friendly. It’s actually an inverse of what happened with Archie and Riverdale because the comic series the new Sabrina takes its name from is… dark.
It’s strange to say that the show is smarter for moving away from some of the more… horrific elements of the comic. Yet, Aguirre-Sacasa and his writers’ room does strike some interesting middle ground in the show’s darkness. Actually, much like the titular character herself, the show is looking for balance between a dual sort of legacy. For the most part, the show succeeds in presenting a new sort of Sabrina.
Putting aside series and source material, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is goosebump-inducing fun from start to finish. The look of the show drips in an almost dreamlike style with blurred edges and earth tones. In the center stands Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) clad often in red with a wry sort of half-smile on her face. Sabrina, herself, is the daughter of a warlock and former High Priest of the Church of Night and a mortal woman. The pair, apparently, died in a tragic plane crash when Sabrina was still young.
Raised in the mortal world by her aunts Hilda (Lucy Davis) and Zelda (Miranda Otto) with her house arrested cousin, Ambrose (Chance Perdomo), Sabrina appears perfectly happy in her life: boyfriend Harvey (Ross Lynch), friends Roz (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie (Lachlan Watson). The series begins with her approach to her Dark Baptism, when she pledges herself to the Dark Lord and shuns her mortal connections. In exchange for power, she gives up part of her freedom. Sabrina, however, wants to have both.
Honestly, that’s all you’re getting from this review in terms of plot. The series is not quite as twisty and turny as its cousin, Riverdale. It does, however, steep itself in the occult and horror, meaning that the fear comes more from the not knowing over everything else. Aguirre-Sacasa and his writers benefit from a shorter episode order, which allows the plot to clip along at a brisk pace. Though, to be honest, it’s clear that this was written knowing it had a season two coming. The season one finale feels more like a midseason finale than anything else.
While we wouldn’t mind having more stuff of the Church of Night explained, it’s not a prerequisite. Shipka draws you in immediately as Sabrina. Charming, confident, smart, and full of righteous anger, she makes for a compelling yet flawed protagonist. In equal measure, her strengths easily turn into her failings. Confidence becomes arrogance, smartness turns into know-it-allness, righteous anger can become condescension. Yet even when Sabrina steps over the line, Shipka still remains a force to be reckoned with as an actress. Her best moments are usually when she has a wry smile on her face like she knows how over the top it all is yet still place it with an earnest sincerity. As the titular character, Shipka has a lot to bear on her shoulders, but she does it quite well. You get a sense that her character is actually a teenager, trying to figure out her way in the world. While she wants to embrace some of her traditions, she also wants to forge her own path.
The other relative newcomers of the cast also bring their talents to the table as well. Ross Lynch, of Disney Channel and My Friend Dahmer fame, gives his Harvey Kinkle a sensitive artist vibe while mixed with a melancholy homelife. He doesn’t have much to do for this first season, except be the boyfriend. In the last episodes though, he does have more to do. Jaz Sinclair as Roz and Lachlan Watson as Susie both play the best friend roles well. It’s refreshing to see how they truly get wrapped up in the supernatural happenings of Greendale as well. (Also kudos to the show for casting a non-binary actor to play a non-binary character and to show the struggles that comes with it as well.) The pity is that, for a good chunk of episodes, the mortal part feels a little lagging in comparison with the rest of the story. Though, hopefully, this will change in season two.
On the witch side of things, two newcomers set themselves apart to shine. Tati Gabrielle excels as magical Regina George, Prudence Night. She clearly relishes in being so unrepentant in her actions, though, they do also provide some much-needed depth as well. Prudence is complicated in the way that Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) is complicated. Both of them are mean girls, but they have depth to them as well.
Chance Perdomo, however, is a standout in the series. Ambrose Spellman, under his dept hands, is complex: good-natured to his cousin and aunts, downright vicious in protecting his family, lustful for life, and with a desperate desire for freedom. He’s also more than happy to help Sabrina or call her out when needed. Imprisoned under house arrest for seventy-five years, Ambrose longs for freedom as well. It makes him an interesting foil for Sabrina’s own desire. Plus, he has a dry sort of comedic timing. If Perdomo plays this right, then this is definitely a career-making role for him. He hits all the right notes.
That’s not to say that the adults don’t give it their all. Lucy Davis and Miranda Otto are wonderful as Aunts Hilda and Zelda. They both are a study in sisterly contrasts to one another. They also have an immediate lived-in sibling relationship. Otto’s utterances of “praise Satan” just makes for some perfect cappers of camp. Davis’ sweet nature is a good counterbalance to the darkness surrounding them.
Michelle Gomez, however, is clearly having the time of her life. Playing the villainous Madam Satan, she happily manipulates events around her to her liking. She clearly brings a lot of Missy from Doctor Who to her role here. It’s a bit more restrained, but she clearly relishes in any and all scenery she can chew. Gomez just owns it in the best possible way. Honestly, where they took her character in comparison to her comic book counterpart is, actually, pretty cool. So I can’t wait to see what’ll happen in season two.
Overall, Sabrina is a wonderful show perfectly released for this time of year, though, we do hope that the show’s second season will be dropped much sooner than next Halloween. We’re also hoping that some hiccups from season one smooth over in season two. Based on the finale, however, it looks like things will get more interesting in Greendale.
(Though, for real, the students of the Academy of the Unseen Arts made the Gargoyle King to mess with the folks over in Riverdale, right?)
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