I was reluctant to watch Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, knowing that it came from Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, or the creator of Riverdale, one of the worst shows I currently watch on TV. Riverdale is sort of a love-to-hate-it show for me, but I can only tolerate one of those, so if Sabrina was going to be in that vein, I was out. But…I’m happy to say that while it is weird and gothic and horror adjacent at many points, unlike Riverdale, this is much more of a show whose subject matter warrants that kind of nuttiness, and Netflix is a platform that allows it to go to bloody and gruesome places that the CW wouldn’t, and as such, it’s much more fitting for Sacasa’s dark and gory sensibilities.
Kiernan Shipka of Mad Men stars as Sabrina Spellman, teen witch whose upcoming 16th birthday will culminate in a “dark baptism,” the event that will officially induct her into the Dark Lord’s (Satan) graces as a loyal servant. As we know from past TV shows and the Archie comics, she lives with her aunts, witches Hilda (Lucy Davis) and Zelda (Mirando Otto), goes to Greendale High and has her dumb devoted boyfriend Harvey (Ross Lynch) to follow her around like a clueless puppy while she works her magic at odd times.
But unlike the innocent, harmless magic of the old comics, these occult practices are now hardcore and very violent. The witch world is also extremely patriarchal, which imbues the show with a kind of feminist bent at times, but it keeps sliding back and forth on which message it wants to endorse. The good things about the show are plentiful- there’s the cast, which is perfectly game and up to all the tonal changes, Otto and Davis in particular as the appealing aunts and Chance Perdomo as Cousin Ambrose, who lives in the Spellman manor/mortuary in this version. The manor itself is also something of a character in this, as an enormous, haunted looking, multichambered maze that daunts no one inside it, as the sunny Sabrina considers it home without thinking twice about it. And unlike a lot of problematic Netflix genre shows, this one sees the value in the standalone episode- there are ongoing arcs and mythology, but this one more or less follows the Buffy template of “Sabrina goes to witch school,” “Sabrina fights a dream demon,” “a Spellman family Thanksgiving,” etc.
Despite the good things though, there are some contradictory underpinnings in the premise. One is the question of why Sabrina wants to be a witch at all. Part of the appeal of the original concept was the idea of magic and witchcraft as fun- an influence on those original comics from early 60’s fantasy sitcoms like Bewitched and The Munsters, etc. In this, everything is pretty horrific and Sabrina spends most of her time defeating bad witches and saving her friends from the evils of the Dark Lord and his minions. She doesn’t want to be part of murder or cannibalism or ritual sacrifice or bloodshed and yet this stuff seems to be the religious foundation of everything about the witch world as we see it, in every episode. She seems to hate everything about it, yet it never occurs to her to not want to participate in it, which is kind of strange, especially as the episodes go on. If the show wants to be dark, I think Sabrina herself has to have an inherent dark side to her as well, she can’t just still be the sunny, happy teen from past versions of this material.
The other issue is her annoying human friends. In the grand tradition of all versions of Harvey Kinkle, he remains an utterly clueless dolt, a human bore that Sabrina spends way too much time preoccupied with. He fulfills the usually female role of “love interest kept in the dark about the hero’s secret identity,” but there’s kind of a reason that stereotype is being retired lately. Her other friends Roz and Susie are equally uninteresting and Sabrina’s eagerness to protect her human friends isn’t really justified by their personalities. But there’s a lot of plot going on on this show, so even if some characters are boring, the cast is big enough to rotate through frequently enough that we don’t have to hang out with anyone too long (Harvey excluded, unfortunately).
Despite the issues with it, I do like the show quite a bit. The attempt at mixing humor and horror is very Buffy-like and the appreciation for episodic plots mixed with longer arcs is such a nice change of pace from the draggy Marvel shows on this platform. Also, thanks to seasons of just ten episodes (a good number), this won’t have to cycle through endless nuttiness (again, see Riverdale), as it wraps up before you can get tired of it. Kiernan Shipka brings an eager, likable sweetness to this role that’s such a shift from her cold, icy, Sally Draper days that it makes me think she’s a real talent at still a very young age. These new Sabrina adventures pay tribute to all that have come before while embracing an entirely new tone and style of its own, and I would strongly suggest giving it a try. Especially if you’re really into the occult. It delivers on that score in ways you’re probably not expecting. I wasn’t.