(By Mark Gonzales) As we draw ever closer to the end of October and the Halloween season, we see many more strange and spooky occurrences. Similarly, as we go deeper into the post-network TV era (just past the Golden Age of HBO and into the Streaming Service Epoch) we find ourselves at a bizarre intersection of 90s nostalgia and gritty re-imaginings. Sitting comfortably at the corner of this intersection is Netflix's The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina…
…You may remember Sabrina Spellman from one of her previous incarnations; either as a loveable side character from Archie Comics or from Melissa Joan Heart's 90s TV series, Sabrina The Teenage Witch. It's most likely that you remember her from the TGIF series that ran for seven seasons while also spawning a number of TV movies. Heart's Sabrina was a sweet, well-meaning teenager whose greatest conflicts came from struggling with her magic powers, dealing with average teenage problems, and ignoring her sarcastic cat. This latest depiction of Sabrina is decidedly darker, scarier, but in many ways, more likeable than any previous on-screen version.
Created, Written, and Executive Produced by Riverdale's Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina fits perfectly into the CW's Riverdale aesthetic while existing on an entirely different platform. If you enjoy Riverdale's dark and bizarrely adult take on the world of Archie Comics you will likely enjoy this vision of Sabrina. However, if you were expecting some manner of crossover between Riverdale and Sabrina, you won't be getting it (not in the first episode anyways). Aguirre-Sacasa has created a lush and visually interesting world for Sabrina to live in that stands entirely on its own.
More so than in any previous take on Sabrina this series manages to capture Sabrina's dual nature as a half mortal-half witch. The problems she faces in the first episode walk the line of mundane teenager issues (bullying, first loves, a weird teacher…) and supernatural perils (bullying from witches, being betrothed to Satan, a weird scarecrow…) While other versions of Sabrina brought her duality into focus through her characterization, this series pulls it off with action, internal conflict, and drama.
This shift towards action makes for a very compelling show but its execution does leave one thing to be desired--it isn't particularly fun. The show is compelling and I fully intend to finish the series before the end of the month. But the audience does not get a sense that Sabrina is enjoying any of this, especially not the witch part of her life. While it would be wrong to expect the whimsy of the Harry Potter films or the saccharine sweetness of Archie Comics, it would make sense for the audience to get some indication of the benefits of witchdom. As it stands in the first episode, almost all the witches and warlocks Sabrina comes into contact with are miserable assholes who don't seem to like being supernatural themselves. We keep expecting to reach a point in the show where we will see why Sabrina wants to be a witch. It should be fun or at least she should find the power she commands to be intoxicating. No such moment comes from the first episode. Perhaps we will find it later in the series.
From the very beginning of the show, we are introduced to some beautiful production design by Lisa Soper (2012's House At The End Of The Street.) Every inch of Sabrina's world is beautiful and scary. Commonplace locations and objects are so imbued with the specter of darkness that it is easy to believe that evil walks amongst us norms in this universe. From Sabrina's school to her home, we cannot help but be drawn into the broken down and haunted beauty of Sabrina's world.
The costuming is similarly lush and meaningful. Costume and Wardrobe Supervisor Kelly Allyn Gardner (Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency) selects clothes that are at once timeless and modern. While the TGIF version of Sabrina is firmly set in the late 90s with its belly shirts and spaghetti straps, the clothes in this series could fit as comfortably into the 1950s and 60s as they would in modern day. In The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the old world is rejecting and fighting against the tastes and views of modernity. This is a theme that we see play out rather nicely in the initial episode.
The casting in this show is surprising and strong. Mad Men's Kiernan Shipka is wonderfully likeable as Sabrina Spellman. In a show as fantastical and dark as this, Shipka delivers a relatable and loveable performance. She brings light and energy to an oppressively dark world. Most importantly perhaps, it is easy to believe that she is a teenage girl with teenage emotions. Sabrina's struggle against meeting her family's expectations while remaining loyal to her human friends and her conflicted desire to tell her boyfriend the truth about her abilities and the fear of rejection and hurt are all marvelously played by Shipka. Her talents alone are enough to keep me watching for several more episodes.
While the first episode focuses almost exclusively on Shipka's Sabrina, we do meet many more cast members who manage to shine in this show's darkness. As Sabrina's aunts, Lucy Davis (Wonder Woman) and Miranda Otto (The Lord of The Rings films) are loveable and cold respectively. The strong differences in the characterizations of these two play nicely with the duality that is present throughout the show. We can all look forward to more from these fascinating characters.
The largest strike against this show is its cinematography. While I loved most of it--the production value is high and at no point is a shot lazy or uninteresting--there is a particular decision that I cannot get behind. While Sabrina is in the presence of the supernatural or using her powers the world takes on a distinct look. Sabrina is in sharp focus while the world around her is distorted, blurred, and misshapen. Describing it now, it seems like an interesting and cool idea. But this Spooky-vision is poorly executed and frequently made me want to look away from my TV during the most exciting and frightening moments of the show.
The frights in Sabrina are many and surprising. After a character is stabbed in the throat with some scissors in the first few minutes, I thought that was roughly the level of terror that we could expect throughout. I was happy to discover how wrong I was; the scares and gore only seem to escalate. By the end, when we join Sabrina for a dark vision of what may come, I found myself muttering, "Holy shit," as well as, "That's fucked." This show is not afraid to present witchcraft and devil worship for what it is--frightening, powerful, and violent.
The series has a great deal of promise. From Sabrina's writing to its performances to its aesthetics, the show is well made and goes in some interesting directions. Thematically, I found that I liked what it was trying to say more than what it actually is saying. The show is, at its cold, black heart, about female empowerment and the value of sisterhood in all its forms. When a friend is faced with bullying in her school, Sabrina acts quickly to form a non-magic coven of sorts to defend her friend. The most pronounced threat that Sabrina faces comes from three witches who betray their sisterhood to Sabrina and curse her. Seeing their strange attack on Sabrina after she struggles to defend her mortal friend made me want those witches to be burned at the nearest stake immediately. The role of sisterhood and female strength in the modern world is an absorbing subject matter that I hope is explored more thoroughly in later episodes.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina will probably not be the best horror series you find this year--that title easily goes to Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House. But there's no rule that you have to watch only one. Sabrina is the type of horror series we need to see more of--thoughtful, engaging, and scary.
By Mark Gonzales