A plucky heroine standing against supernatural forces is nothing new to television – Joss Whedon spent seven seasons exploring that with Buffy the Vampire Slayer – and now Netflix throws its hat in the ring with their adaptation of the comic book series that takes the sweet natured character of Sabrina, first introduced in Archie Comics back in 1962, into a decidedly darker and more horrific direction. Most of us are familiar with the character of Sabrina from the 90s television show Sabrina the Teenage Witch, starring Melissa Joan Hart, but talking cats and goofy shenanigans are not to be found in Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Instead, we have heaping helpings of gothic horror, dread and gore, where this plucky heroine must decide what path she will take — the dark path of the witch or the one of the mortal world. Of course, this series isn’t all blood, guts and demonology — as much as I’d like that — the show also deals heavily with Sabrina’s desire to keep her mortal friends, and that is where the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina stumbles the most as it tries to balance high school drama with the darker aspects of horror.
Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) is half-witch/half-mortal, raised by her two aunts, Zelda (Miranda Otto) and Hilda (Lucy Davis) Spellman, and upon her sixteenth birthday, she is to attend her “Dark Baptism,” a ceremony that involves Sabrina signing her name into the Dark Lord’s book, and this is something Sabrina is hesitant to do. And why is that, you ask? Well it just so happens that Sabrina is in love with a mortal boy named Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch), and taking the dark path would mean abandoning him as well as her two best girlfriends Rosalind (Jaz Sinclair) and Suzie (Lachlan Watson). This is meant to be a tough decision, but given that we know little of Sabrina as a character, we can’t completely understand her dilemma, for the witches in this universe are evil, and I mean really, really evil – we’re talking murdering, cannibalistic servants of Lucifer who who utter “Praise Satan” at every opportunity – so Sabrina having any qualms about which path to take left me questioning her moral compass. Did her aunts somehow shelter her from the darker aspects of their world? Did she think their extolling of “Praise Satan” was just some quaint old world affectation? The witches here are not some form of Wicca practitioners, who give offerings up to pagan gods, they have literally signed over their souls to the actual Devil.
This is the hardest aspect of the show to swallow; that the supposed nice girl Sabrina would be a party to any of this, and even as she makes a “Deal with the Devil” – forgoing the signing of the Dark Book but agreeing to attend classes at the Academy of the Unseen Arts – we have to question just how blindly naive this girl really is. Throughout the ten episode season we find Sabrina running to her aunts or fellow witches time and time again for advice – usually because of something stupid she has done — but they have all promised to serve Satan body and soul, so I can’t see their advice being all that unbiased. They are enthralled to the Father of Lies, how can she trust any of them, for Pete’s sake! She even goes to a trio of seriously dangerous witches for help with school bullying.
Kiernan Shipka does admirable work with the material given her – I don’t fault her for the complete lack of chemistry between Sabrina and Harvey – and the show is a visual feast of Gothic imagery that will have any fans of the genre salivating at almost every shot; the supporting cast as a whole brings a measure of substance to the show, even if their backstories are a little thin and unexplored – I do love Sabrina’s cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) who is under house arrest for trying to blow up the Vatican – and the make-up and special effects are all pretty top notch, I just wish the showrunners had spent a little more time on figuring out how the “witch world” actually works. We are told that witches are not supposed to interfere with the mortal world, but they seem to hold down jobs and interact with them all the time, so what level of interaction is allowed? Sabrina’s dad married a mortal, and though frowned upon, it was allowed.
Then there is the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry…sorry, I mean the Academy of the Unseen Arts, where Sabrina is to attend classes while apparently also going to her regular high school, and this had me wondering just how she can pull this off. Did the school’s headmaster Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle) lend her Hermione’s Time-Turner?
The show doesn’t spend much time with exactly how the Academy of the Unseen Arts functions, we don’t in fact spend all that much time there at all – we see Sabrina joins the school choir and almost gets hazed to death, and that’s about it – but as far as I can tell, the school only has two teachers: Father Blackwood and his wife who runs the choir. So not so much an evil school as it is a poorly manned community college, and this lacking could have easily been rectified if they’d spent more time on the witch world and less on the cliché high school drama that we are forced to wallow through at Sabrina’s regular school. Did we actually need another teen drama that deals with bullying, sexual identity, censorship and sexism? Worse is that Bronson Pinchot is wasted as the school’s boorish principal, and is pretty much only trotted out when the writers remember he is there at all. And I’m not saying this show shouldn’t tackle such topics, science fiction and fantasy have always been able to take interesting spins on important social matters, but in this case, they do it in such a leaden and hackneyed fashion that it’s almost laughable.
On a more serious note, have you heard of the Salem Witch trials? I’m sure you have, but if not let’s just say it wasn’t a particularly shining moment in the history of America, as fourteen women and five men were found guilty of witchcraft and were executed — the key fact here being that they weren’t actually witches. Shocking, I know. Yet in this series, it clearly implies that the Salem Witches were in fact real witches, and that is all kinds of poor taste if you ask me, especially when this show blatantly depicts witches as being evil Satan worshipping villains. So are we now to believe that the citizens of Salem killed those people in self-defense? Working real life tragic events into your fiction is tricky business, and the people behind the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina are about as subtle and tactful as a bull in a china shop.
This review may seem quite harsh, and certain aspects of the show really deserve a good flogging, but the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina does have some good qualities – mostly in the casting and art direction – and if the showrunners could have pulled their collective heads out of their asses long enough come up with a consistent world of witches and mortals, we could have a really fun show on our hands.
• Zelda repeatedly murders her sister Hilda in a nod to the comic book House of Secrets, where Caine and Able do the same.
• Sabrina only agrees to attend the Academy of the Unseen Arts so that she can learn summoning and banishment. This is so she can take on the Dark Lord. Seriously, she expects to be able to banish Lucifer himself. Good luck with that.
• Every television set in Glendale seems to play nothing but black and white horror movies.
• Sabrina gets legal counsel from lawyer Daniel Webster of “The Devil and Daniel Webster” fame.
• Why would attempting to blow up the Vatican get a witch in trouble? They repeatedly call Christianity the “false church,” so wouldn’t this be considered a plus in Satan’s book?
• Sabrina has a “Monkey’s Paw” dilemma that goes as good as can be expected.
• My favourite character is “Madame Satan,” as actress Michelle Gomez eats up every inch of scenery within reach, and she is a pure delight to watch.
• Sabrina is the key to a dark prophecy, because of course she is.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018) - Season One
There is a lot of fun to be had from this dark adaptation of Sabrina the Teenage Witch but the show’s bizarre choice of have witches being outright evil makes it hard to root for anyone, and Sabrina herself comes across as a vacuous idiot at times while her boyfriend is as interesting as damp cardboard, and the clumsy shoehorning of teen drama clichés needs to stop.