As many of you who read this blog regularly will already know, or anyone who sits near me for even a brief period will find out, I hate the show Riverdale. It strikes me as a generic CW show that only distinguishes itself by being based on Archie Comics, which also pisses me off because the comic book Riverdale was supposed to be like Mayberry: It’s a place where people are who they should be. They’re not perfect, but the good try to be better and the bad are taught to be good. Instead, this Riverdale is full of darkness and teen angst. This is the only kind of reboot or reimagining that I usually will protest: It’s profaning that which its source held sacred, but not doing anything imaginative with that profanity. And yes, I watched the entire first season to give it a fair shot. So, when they said they were going to do a spin-off of the show featuring Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, most people thought I would oppose it.
THOSE PEOPLE WERE WRONG.
While Riverdale stands against everything that Archie Comics originally stood for, Sabrina the Teenage Witch has always been a little creepy and macabre. Even the 90s series with Melissa Joan Hart had a lot of stuff that, in retrospect, was dark as hell. I mean, she regularly manipulates memories, changes people’s personalities, causes giant weather phenomenon, and punishes people with curses for arbitrary reasons. Those are all things that, in a less comic setting, would be objectively horrifying. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is just taking that to its logical conclusion.
Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) is about to turn 16 years old on Halloween under a Blood Moon… at which point she shall have to undergo her “Dark Baptism” and sign her soul into the Book of the Beast and pledge herself to the Dark Lord Satan. However, Sabrina is a rare existence, a half-witch half-human, which gives her a choice: She can embrace her magic side and gain longevity and power, or she can stay in her human life with her human friends, including her boyfriend Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch). Her aunts, Hilda and Zelda (Lucy Davis and Miranda Otto) and her cousin, Ambrose (Chance Perdomo), are all practitioners of the Dark Arts who give her guidance… and sometimes commands that she disobeys.
Ultimately, this choice and how she tries to avoid it, negotiate it, or pick a third option is most of her character arc for this season. At the same time, her magical presence is revealed to be impacting Harvey and her friends Susie (Lachlan Watson) and Roz (Jaz Sinclair). Additionally, she has to deal with the dark path offered by Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle), the head warlock of her coven, the temptations of Ms. Wardwell (Michelle Gomez), a demon inhabiting the body of her teacher, and the semi-racist ire of the Weird Sisters, three witches that act like the Plastics from Mean Girls (Adeline Rudolph, Tati Gabrielle, Abigail Cowen).
Like most of Netflix’s shows, this is a serial that builds towards the season finale… which itself mostly just sets everything up for the next season. Since Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has already been given an order for a second season, this isn’t much of an issue. I think the pace of it is pretty solid, moreso than most of the Netflix Marvel series. There are a lot of subplots that start off fairly slow and do a great job building over the course of the season, while the main plot involving Sabrina keeps shifting enough that it doesn’t feel overly repetitive. Some of the episode gimmicks seem a little cliche or lame but, honestly, the show’s acting and atmosphere consistently overwhelm any of those issues.
The performances are pretty great. My favorite character has to be Chance Perdomo’s Ambrose, who is under house arrest throughout the series. In one of his first appearances, if not his first appearance, he’s shown having a laptop outside of the Spellman home, signalling that he is much more modern than any of the other witches and warlocks depicted. He is pansexual, and also genre-savvy and sassy as hell, which would normally make him the only sane man in the show, but his constant love of mischief, rebellion, and boning instead make him appear as a roguish mage, which… well, works.
Hilda and Zelda are both great characters as well, each one encouraging Sabrina in different ways and directions. Susie, Roz, and Harvey are all really great at selling the idea that they’re close to Sabrina and would be worth forsaking magic for. Then there’s Sabrina.
I think what surprises me most about Kiernan Shipka’s portrayal is that it both seems similar to Melissa Joan Hart’s Sabrina and yet is completely distinct. She’s very loyal, supportive, and upbeat, but has an enormous dark side (the kind where she accepts that she’s going to be bathed in human blood and pledged to wed Satan). The best thing is that she represents a lot of kids out there, just in a twisted way: She’s in a family that is firmly rooted in tradition and devotion to god (just… not the Christian God), but she wants to be independent and question why things are still done this way. It’s an old trope, but it’s one that’s been beautifully turned on its head by the show.
Another thing that I love in the show is the atmosphere. The town it’s set in, Greendale, is described as being a place where every day feels like Halloween, and the show really took that to heart. The trees, the stores, the characters, everything feels like it’s got a layer of cobwebs over it. But it’s still got the feeling of a small town underneath, where people still walk to school and work in coal mines and watch black-and-white horror films. It’s Real American Nostalgia, but with pumpkins.
And I can’t go without mentioning the Satanism. I think the way they handle Satanism in the show is literally the best part. Look, the show doesn’t beat around the bush: Everything that the witches do is suuuuuuper messed up. They eat people on holidays. They steal organs and blood from corpses. They alter memories and commune with demons. However, aside from when they’re actively doing those things… they’re Southern Baptists (or any equivalent small-town religion). I grew up in a Southern Baptist community, and all of the times that the show has a witch saying “hail Satan” is the exact moment when a Baptist woman would say “praise Jesus.” Sabrina is constantly told that things are just done a certain way and not to question it, she’s told to not fool around with her boyfriend (and she doesn’t), and everyone views the church as the social, political, and moral center of the community. Every time she tries to be “progressive,” her family loves her but they wish she’d just quit ruining their perception in the church, even if she’s right. That’s why it’s so easy to buy the way that the witches worship in the show; they’re literally just a dark reflection of an existing culture.
Overall, I loved this series. It’s dark, but in a good way. It’s got actual morals and themes to discuss, even if it’s disguised them beneath a layer of blood and goblins. It’s progressive, but it’s not exactly preachy about it. The sets, music, and acting are all wonderful, and the end of the season shows that things are really just heating up. WATCH IT NOW!
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