By JD Phillips
As any child of the nineties with an older sister, I watched a lot of “Sabrina The Teenage Witch” as a kid. It was never my thing but as a fan of the CW’s dark Archie reinvention “Riverdale”, I was excited to see Sabrina get the same treatment. The result is a mixed bag that is truly chilling when it wants to be but doesn’t always work when it isn’t focusing on its satanic delights.
I thought it was weird that Netflix picked this show up instead of the CW. Then I saw the first episode and it made perfect sense. This show isn’t playing around with its witchy source material. While the original series was more “teenage witch barbie”, this show is straight up “bride of Satan”. It features dream demons, exorcisms, curses, cannibalism, and the literal effing devil. It does not shirk away from its horror roots at all. In fact, it may be Netflix’s second scariest show besides “The Haunting Of Hill House”.
The non-horror elements of the show don’t work nearly as well though. Like its sister series, “Riverdale”, this show frequently deals with politically charged issues like bullying, hazing, and feminism. While it works on the former show, it feels extremely forced in this series. Riverdale and Riverdale High both feel fully fleshed out. They are full of eclectic characters and locations that make the political commentary feel very natural as it pertains to such a small community.
Greendale and Baxter High don’t feel fleshed out at all. The bullies and bastards in the show are all poorly written straw man characters who are only designed to drive home the point the episode is trying to make. There’s no reason given why the principal is such a sexist dick, he just is because they want a sexist dick to play against.
Plotlines like protesting the banned books in the library seem very trite and after-school special compared to Sabrina’s challenge to outsmart the literal lord of darkness himself.
There are a few moments where these plotlines do shine through. Sabrina punishing bullies with evil spells or attacking her principal with a horde of spiders has such a delightfully twisted “Heathers” feel to it.
Part of what made those moments shine is how excellent Kiernan Shipka is in the role. She certainly isn’t Don Draper’s daughter anymore! (Though I really wish Jon Hamm could be Sabrina’s dad). She plays the role with the perfect balance of innocence, 21st-century feminist power, and dark mischief.
The rest of the cast is a pretty mixed bag. The Spellman clan is all pretty pitch perfect. Lucy Davis, Miranda Otto, and Chance Perdomo are all pretty perfect in their roles. The show gets better the more it leans on their talents. The other witch players are hit or miss though. Michelle Gomez (“Doctor Who”’s Missy!) and Tati Gabrielle are both wickedly awesome scene stealers but Richard Coyle and Gavin Leatherwood are pretty ho-hum in their roles.
The mortal actors also get the short end of the stick, but that’s not really their fault. Harvey, Susie, and Rosalind’s stories all get better as the show goes on, but there’s no denying that the episodes lose a lot of their adrenaline when they pivot to focus on their storylines and away from witchy hijinks. From the way the show is going though, this may not always be the case. They all get a few really good moments of supernatural drama and they may end up just as interesting as the A-plots eventually.
The plots themselves also skew wildly in quality. It’s like “Doctor Who” in a way. Episodes that feature nightmare demons, Sabrina’s dark baptism, or Harvey’s tragically zombified brother are truly amazing. Conversely, the episodes about Sabrina being hazed at witch school, her cliched witch trial, or the show’s not-so-veiled critique of Thanksgiving are often eye-rollingly mundane and predictable (although the latter does feature a fantastically ghoulish scene of cannibalistic frenzy.)
The show should be praised for how boldly it jumps from big plot to big plot as it seeks to find itself. Hopefully, the years to come will feature more chilling adventures and less of the cliched adventures.
“The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina” is a fun and scary Netflix series that doesn’t shy away at all from its satanically inspired themes but doesn’t always knock it out of the park with its political commentary and side characters. Ultimately though, it is a fantastic follow up to “Sabrina The Teenage Witch” and “Riverdale” that may very well surpass both.
Who do I talk to about starting a petition for the show to have a dream sequence episode that is told entirely like its 90’s sitcom predecessor? Nick Bakay needs to reprise his role as Salem at least once!