Netflix debuts a darker teenage witch with a reimagining that gives Sabrina a right to choose.
Eat your Hart out, Melissa Joan!
If you were a kid of the 1990’s, you probably tuned into Sabrina The Teenage Witch. Part of ABC’s TGIF line-up, the sitcom was a breezy look at a girl struggling to come to terms with discovering that she was, you guessed it, a witch. She had to deal with having a boyfriend AND learn to conjure spells while cracking jokes with a sassy black cat. It turns out (and, admittedly, I didn’t know this until recently) that that version wasn’t really true to the Archie Comics‘ Sabrina. The new Netflix series takes Sabrina back her dark roots, and it’s a campy and engaging return.
Kiernan Shipka leads The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina in this new take. The town of Greendale has a timeless quality to it. You barely see any technology, and you sometimes wonder if the show is set in today’s era. Like most teenagers, Sabrina likes to go out with her boyfriend Harvey (Ross Lynch) and her two best friends Ros an Susie (Jaz Sinclair and Lachlan Watson) to scary movies. It feels like a typical teen drama. You know, until all the supernatural death stuff starts happening.
Sabrina is nearing her 16th birthday as the season begins, and it is indeed a special time. Her aunt Zelda (Miranda Otto) expects her to take the steps to become a witch by attending the Academy of the Unseen Arts. Sabrina, however, is not sure she wants to abandon her friends and everything familiar to her in Greendale. There are, of course, dark forces trying to push her to go to the Academy just because of Sabrina’s deceased parents, but the first few episodes focuses primarily on Sabrina’s right to choose. Any time Shipka tells other characters that she should have the freedom of choice, it echoes strongly but not in an overbearing way.
There are moments in the first half of the season that resonate strongly in this post #MeToo era. If Sabrina signs the Dark Lord’s book, he will own her body and soul. A few episodes later, Sabrina is on trial and told that she failed to hold up her end of a bargain. A man says, “You gave every indication that it was your intention to fulfill a promise made…you showed up to a ceremony you committed to and at the moment of consummation, you fled–you broke your promise.” Tales of witches have always tackled the oppression of women, but this iteration tells its young women to not take any shit from men.
Shipka’s Sabrina is headstrong and smart. She’s a young woman who knows her value, but she is still young and in need of guidance. She allows Sabrina to be vulnerable, but knows when she needs to be strong. The chemistry between her, Otto, and Lucy Davis (who plays Aunt Hilda–making Caroline Rhea proud) is charming and relaxed. Instagram star Chance Perdomo plays Sabrina’s housebound warlock cousin Ambrose, and I suspect that gay Twitter will immediately fall in love with him. Michelle Gomez plays one of Sabrina’s favorite teachers, Mrs. Wardell, who becomes possessed by Satan’s handmaiden in the pilot episode. She slithers around the rest of the season, and she’s delicious (even though no one really asks her how she seamlessly goes from sensitive educator to luscious vamp with a great blowout).
It’s not all serious. There is a strong Buffy the Vampire Slayer vibe to The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina even though it may take Sabrina an episode or two to find its footing. That spooky, funny, campy tone is hard to define immediately, but it settles nicely once it embraces the hot young people soap opera themes.
Sorry, Salem, but this version is much better.