First created in 1962 (by writer George Gladir and artist Dan DeCarlo), Sabrina The Teenage Witch has become a mainstay of popular culture, existing in comic books, a long-running, live-action TV series, animated series and more.
More recently, Sabrina Spellman found herself reinvented once more, written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, with art by Robert Hack, for the line of Archie Horror comics, replacing the more child-friendly version with a darker take on the same material.
Now Netflix has given this latest incarnation a new afterlife as a ten episode first season, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
The essential set-up is the same, half-witch, half-human Sabrina lives (in Greendale, neighbouring town to Riverdale, home of Archie, Jughead, Betty & Veronica) with her witch aunts, Hilda and Zelda, and dates the human Harvey Kinkle. As the show opens, Sabrina is approaching her sixteenth birthday, when she will attend an unholy ritual to sign over her soul to The Dark Lord (that’s Satan, to you and me). Of course, Sabrina has been keeping her true nature a secret from Harvey and her school friends, Roz and Susie. And Sabrina, deep in the throes of love with her human boyfriend, is having doubts about her forthcoming dark baptism.
Mixed in with all this are Ambrose, Sabrina’s cousin, a warlock confined to house arrest in the Spellman home and Mary Wardell , Sabrina’s teacher and mentor who proves to be, well, something else entirely…
It’s a great roster of characters and the first thing to say about the show is that it’s packed with terrific actors. A hearty well done to the casting director. Kiernan Shipka makes a superb Sabrina, not quite the bubbly teenager from the 90s show, this incarnation is more complex, and Shipka balances the character’s sweetness with an emerging arrogance and carelessness, while never losing our sympathy. It’s an intriguing juggling act for the young actress to pull off, but Shipka never puts a foot wrong.
Lucy Davies and Miranda Otto are both quite delicious as Sabrina’s aunts, and Chance Perdomo is delightful as her frisky, pansexual cousin. Michelle Gomez is frankly magnificent, obviously relishing her role as Wardell, while Jaz Sinclair and Lachlan Watson make the most of their well-defined ‘best friend’ parts, both providing strong role models. Ross Lynch is somewhat less successful as boyfriend Harvey, which brings me to one of the show’s failings.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina provides us with a raft of strong female characters, with family, friends and rivals all well-written and acted, their relationships complicated and defined. I’m less enamored of some of the fellas, however.
As mentioned, Ambrose is good value, but the other male roles don’t stand up to strong scrutiny. Gavin Leatherwood’s Nicholas Scratch, a classmate of Sabrina’s at the Academy of the Unseen Arts, has mostly been used as a one-dimensional, slutty rival and counterpoint to Sabrina’s boyfriend to little effect, and Richard Coyle, as the Academy’s head (and High Priest of the Coven) is fun and the best of the bunch but, like Scratch, his character hasn’t been gifted with much depth so far. Finally, and most damagingly, Lynch’s Harvey is a 100% genuine wet blanket.
The character is so insufferably dull that you wonder what exactly it is that Sabrina sees in him, and why she might consider giving up her witch-hood for him. Not only does it make any scenes with him a chore but it also diminishes Sabrina’s character as, unfortunately, many of her actions revolve around her relationship with him (which could certainly be argued as another of the show’s failings).
Even when the character finally gets some gumption in the final episode, he does so in a dull-witted manner which just made me want to punch him. Note to writers: must try harder when it comes to Harvey.
The irony of all this is quite rich and I’m sure there might be some readers (rightfully) thinking: well, this is the kind of nonsense female parts have suffered forever! But weak characters make for weak drama, no matter the gender, and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina could do with a serious male shake-up for its second season. Be clear, I’m not suggesting the fellas take center stage, far from it. I do feel they should make better use of the corners of the stage they occupy, however. It’s common sense that a show is more enjoyable as a whole if we can get behind all the characters.
Despite these caveats, I can recommend Sabrina as a thoroughly good time. I’ve read certain reviewers having a tough time with the show’s often whiplash changes in tone, but for me this was one of its plus points, adding a frisson of enjoyable unpredictability to proceedings. One moment we’re enjoying Spellman family larks, the next a host of witches are hanging by their necks from a gnarled tree or engaging in a pansexual orgy. Melissa Joan Hart would have a heart attack, but that’s part of the ghoulish fun.
Happily, Sabrina isn’t content to spin its wheels and maintain the status quo, as the show gets gradually darker as the season progresses and leaves many of the characters in very different, more complex places by the end of the final episode.
There’s plenty of subtext behind the show’s blood and zombies too, with fundamentalism and fanaticism, LGBTQ intolerance and even censorship in schools all having healthy swipes taken at them.
For long-time horror fans a swathe of references can be spotted, everything from the sibling cycle of murder and resurrection of DC Comics’ House of Mystery hosts, Cain and Abel, to ‘Salem’s Lot’s hovering ghoul at the window and The Evil Dead’s tree demon. Movies such as Hellraiser, The Shining, The Craft and even The Devil and Daniel Webster all get pointed shout-outs too.
This was a highly anticipated show for me, as I’m a big fan of the Archie Horror comics it’s based on, and while it doesn’t get quite as dark I’m happy to say I wasn’t disappointed as it does find its own voice and, overall, I had a blast with it.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has me in its spell and I can’t wait for season two to materialise in a puff of demonic fire and brimstone.