Sabrina Spellman is facing all the typical troubles of teen-hood – a bully infested school, conflict with parental guardians, the looming spiritual imprisonment into Satan’s servitude, balancing friendships and a love life. Just classic teen drama, really.
A gritty reboot of a silly 90’s sitcom had so much potential to fail and yet The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina defy low expectations and proves itself a thoroughly decent show. Thank Satan for that! Sabrina’s life is messy, even more so than your typical adolescence, and sometimes this messiness can seep into the storytelling technique but despite some slight missteps, the journey as a whole is still entirely bewitching and rather charming.
Even though people are initially going to compare this show to Sabrina the Teenage Witch, it’s actually based on a comic series and is written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who also created the Netflix series, Riverdale. The series opens with our half-mortal, half-witch heroine, Sabrina, having to make a decision between her two lives. To fully come into her witch powers, she must sign her soul away to the Dark Lord in a coming-of-age ceremony however, this would also result in her giving up her human life, human friends and human boyfriend.
Despite playing with some dark, satanic plot points, this series still delivers the fun, mostly thanks to the excellent cast. As in the 90’s sitcom, the aunts are a prominent source of entertainment with their often-tumultuous relationship. Zelda and Hilda, played by Miranda Otto (Lord of the Rings) and Lucy Davis (The Office) respectively, act as Sabrina’s stern, logical voice of reason and her bumbling, empathetic heart. The one notable missing ingredient to the classic crew is the dryly witty and meme-able Salem the cat. Salem is present in this series but as a mute, protective Familiar of Sabrina. Though this alteration may be enough to turn old fans off the show entirely, all is not lost. The reins of sarcastic quip dispenser are picked up by Sabrina’s cousin, Ambrose.
Ambrose is a British, pansexual warlock bound to the house by a curse and living out their days helping the aunts with their funeral business. Though they’re not given as many classic lines as the 90’s sitcom Salem, they’re still a cheeky, laidback confidant for Sabrina and the acting performance of Chance Perdomo is brilliantly enjoyable.
The only slight hiccup (and I really do mean slight) in acting ability is the main star Kiernan Shipka of Mad Men fame. As a whole, she is a more than competent actor – she’s enduring, wholesome and you can’t help but root for her. However, she may be too sweetly innocent. In parts of the show which demands a sinister edge, it’s hard to see past her child-like innocent demeanour. However, seeing that she plays a sixteen-year-old who’s newly entering a darker period in her life, this tameness can be forgiven.
Other areas of the series suffer from slight stumbles also. Occasionally, the exposition vomit from characters can be clumsy and jarring, especially in the first episode. Despite the relatively short run of the series (with only 10 episodes), the show still can’t escape the mistake of using a “filler episode” which really doesn’t contribute anything to the overall story arc and leads the series to feel like an unimportant Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, with the dodgy monster costume design only hammering home this feel. The monster design throughout the series was rather hit-and-miss, with some looking like cheap trick-or-treat costumes. Oddly, for once the CGI was actually fairly decent, which suggests most of the budget went to this, leaving practical monster design quality to lag behind.
This show could have easily been light teen drama fluff but thankfully they do deliver with the horror. A lot of sequences are genuinely chilling, with sinister visuals that stick with you. There are plenty of storyline and visual references to classic horrors like the Exorcist, Night of the Living Dead, Evil Dead, Cronenberg, the fun is in trying to recognise them all – there are certainly enough to keep a horror buff entertained.
Another way they keep the show from leaning towards “useless fluff” is through the exploration of feminism. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina uses witchcraft to explore female empowerment within the limitations set by men. The coven is described to Sabrina as her only path to power and yet the coven is controlled by male figures – the slimy high priest (Richard Coyle of Coupling) and Satan. These are who give witches their power but only at the cost of submission and enslavement. The ceremony of joining the Black Church is even described as a “marriage” to Satan. It’s this sacrifice of freedom that Sabrina fights against.
The series also presents another female-led group fighting for power except this group is the complete opposite of the Black Church. WICCA is a group Sabrina and her human friends created – it’s a group created for women by women to fight for more representative education and against transphobia in the school. The series is clearly conscious of social issues and represents LGBTQ+ and race discussions throughout but without seeming too overly preachy, which should keep people afraid about those mythical “PC police” quiet (though, let’s face it, they rarely give up an opportunity to complain).
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina was enjoyable. Was it fantastic and without fault? No. The pacing was often a bit sloppy, acting occasionally cheesy and some special effects questionable. But did it hook me in and get me invested in the characters and plot points? Absolutely. If you’re looking for a spooky and fun binge this Halloween, this series is the show for you. – Michaela Barton (@MichaelaBarton_)