HomeTelevisionReview: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is Immediately Bewitching

Review: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is Immediately Bewitching

Photo Credit: Netflix

After the success CW had in rebooting Archie, Jughead and the rest of the gang into the sexy murder mystery drama that is Riverdale, it only made sense that a Sabrina reboot would follow. In fact, if there’s any Archie Comics property deserving of being seen from this dark and pseudo-realistic angle it’s the story about a half-mortal teenage witch constantly torn between her mystical destiny and her life as a human teenager.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina may or may not exist within the same universe as Riverdale, but one thing that crosses over between the two shows is their shared creator and lead director. This doesn’t mean that the two shows fit together like two pieces in the same puzzle, but it does mean that anyone who watches Riverdale won’t be too shocked to see what they’ve done to the characters and the fictional world of Greendale that a lot of us fell in love with on the low-stakes goofy ’90s sitcom that was Sabrina The Teenage Witch.

Although Netflix’s Sabrina does have a scant few nods to the series that came before it – namely in Kiernan Shipka’s somewhat peppy and charismatic portrayal of Sabrina, at times reminiscent of Melissa Joan Hart but never disproportionately so – the differences are stark and immediate. For one, the stakes are incredibly high from the moment we meet Sabrina: she is days away from her dark baptism, a ceremony in which she will renounce her mortal name and her mortal friends, sign her life to the Dark Lord, and leave Greendale for the Academy of the Unseen Arts where she will fulfill her destiny as a witch and daughter to a former high priest.

If this sounds like there’s a lot going on, there kind of is, and the show makes use of a little bit of exposition to get all the points across. Conversations can feel a bit weighed down by everything they have to set up and get out of the way within the first hour, and some of the dialogue does leave a little bit to be desired.

For example, a scene in which Zelda (Miranda Otto) explains to Hilda (the incomparable Lucy Davis) that they use human blood for witchcraft feels unnecessary; if anyone should know how to do witchcraft it would be one of the series’ two lead witches. But we as viewers need to understand as early as possible that this version of Hilda and Zelda are a lot spookier than Caroline Rhea and Beth Broderick, and as long as this level of expositional world-building stays within the series opener, it’s something I can live with.

Speaking of the series’ lead witches, who else rounds out the main cast? First there’s Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch), Sabrina’s mortal boyfriend. A little less hapless than his sitcom counterpart, but still a bit clueless and blinded by his love for Sabrina. Sabrina’s two best friends: the politically conscious Roz (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie (Lachlan Watson), an androgynous young woman who is regularly bullied by the Baxter High football team, and whom Sabrina is fiercely protective of.

Sabrina’s cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) makes his first appearance in a live-action Sabrina property, replacing Salem’s role in the sitcom as the devil on Sabrina’s shoulder; a witch who has been placed on house arrest by the Witches Council and who guides Sabrina on her witchcraft. Salem is still present, but instead as Sabrina’s familiar; a goblin that has taken the form of an animal to serve their witch master.

On the antagonistic side of things, you have The Weird Sisters, a group of students at the Academy of the Unseen Arts who had a grudge on Sabrina, and Mrs. Wardell (Michelle Gomez), one of Sabrina’s favorite teachers at Baxter High who, after being possessed, aims to manipulate Sabrina.

Among the changes made to create a spookier atmosphere for this show about a church of satanic witches, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina have moved Sabrina (Shipka) and her family from a house in the suburbs of Boston to The Spellman Mortuary located on the outskirts of Greendale. Greendale seems plagued by perpetual fog, and is described in Sabrina’s narration as a town “where it always feels like Halloween.”

Despite the doom and gloom setting, Sabrina is a relatively enthusiastic and well-adjusted young girl who happens to have a love for the macabre and a desire to learn more about her witchy heritage. However, Sabrina is also politically conscious and fiercely opinionated, leading her to question several of the rituals and choices that her aunts have laid out for her, much to their dismay. Sabrina is anxious about having to separate herself from her mortal life and her friends, and this hesitation reads to her aunts as a lack of dedication to their Dark Lord, which begins to cause conflict amongst the family.

Even something as simple as picking a familiar is met with challenge by Sabrina; her aunts insist she do it the old-fashioned way and choose a servant our of a catalog. Sabrina would rather do an incantation to have a familiar find her and be her equal as opposed to her servant. It’s through this spell that she is met by her familiar, Salem. Whether or not the decision to be equals as opposed to a more traditional master-servant relationship will backfire on Sabrina or proof to become a conflict down the road remains to be seen, but for now Salem is a very dedicated cat who watches over her carefully, even saving her from the meddling of Mrs. Wardell.

Introducing the supernatural into a world that is meant to largely resemble our own without having it come across as cheesy or unbelievable is a difficult task to accomplish, and Sabrina manages to handle this both with some nuance and with absolutely no shame. There are moments that attempt to ground the story in reality, invoking historical events like the Salem witch trials to give context to Sabrina and her family’s choice to settle in the neighboring town of Greendale.

The show also makes a point to denote when witchy stuff is happening by using a fish eye type of lens, usually framing Sabrina in the center and having everything around her seem distant and a little distorted. It helps to remind the audience that Sabrina is still out of her depth when it comes to witchcraft.

When it comes to displaying the actual magic and supernatural, however, the show barely holds back. The result is… a little cheesy and unbelievable, and I have a feeling the use of CGI and some of the visual elements might be polarizing for some viewers. It’s important to remember that this show’s target audience is teenagers and young adults, and they (hopefully) may be less scrutinizing when it comes to how realistic the Baphomet-esque creature looks.

Personally, I think the less-than-impressive special effects and outlandish visual choices make the show feel a little bit more fun and serve to remind us that what we’re watching may be dark, but it’s still a story about a teenager based on an Archie comic. No matter how intense things get, it’s supposed to be a fun ride. And a dramatic one. The episode leaves us with Sabrina asserting her independence and attempt to enter into adulthood on her own terms, only to realize she is meddling in forces far greater than she can comprehend, and I cannot wait to see how intense this gets.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Melissa Jouben
Melissa Jouben
Melissa Jouben is an enthusiastic young writer who can usually be seen performing or enjoying live comedy in New Jersey and New York. She has a very limited range of interests which can be summed up by the following list, in no particular order: comedy, cartoons, toy collecting, wrestling, limited edition varieties of soda, and Billy Joel. She was born and raised in New Jersey and can’t wait to leave so she can brag to all her new neighbors about how great the ocean smells at low tide.

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