Netflix's reboot of ABC sitcom Sabrina The Teenage Witch finds its groove at the midway mark
CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA (multiple directors) premieres Friday (October 26) on Netflix. Rating: NNN
The recipe for Netflix’s Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina probably begins with Harry Potter’s spine. Boil it in a pot with some camp touches from Tales From The Crypt. Sprinkle in the goofy sitcom humour from the ABC series Sabrina The Teenage Witch (because you can’t excommunicate old fans). Stir and wait for about five episodes for this oddball brew to finally conjure some magic.
The darker, bloodier take on the teenage witch inelegantly sorts through competing tones, influences and plot lines before finding its groove at the midway mark. The latter half is addictive, fun and sufficiently spooky.
The new series announces its departure from the late-90s Full House-style sitcom early on. Not even 10 minutes go by before someone is impaled by scissors and the show goes on with Satanic rituals, human sacrifices, cannibalism and ghouls. Even Aunt Zelda has a habit of murdering Aunt Hilda, though that’s more a temporary punishment since resurrection is a thing with these witches.
And yet despite so much gruesomeness, Chilling Adventures’ Sabrina Spellman, played by Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka, remains just about as wholesome as the one once played by Melissa Joan Hart, but far more humourless. She occasionally makes out with her boyfriend, Harvey (Ross Lynch), but keeps the language and amorous activity strictly PG. (Other witches and warlocks take part in the occasional orgy.)
Shipka, who looks like a cross between Snow White and Emma Watson’s Hermione Granger, has a hard time leaving an impression. That may have a lot to do with how overwhelmed she is, looking like a stunned deer as the plot and characters race by.
The series begins with preparations for Sabrina’s dark baptism. On her 16th birthday, which conveniently lands on Halloween, she must sign her name to the Book Of The Beast, devote her life to Satan and cut off ties with her human friends who don’t realize she’s half-witch. They actually don’t even know that secretive witches, warlocks and demons roam their mining community.
There’s a mystery floating around involving Sabrina’s parents, whose marriage was a scandal for the Spellman family while their subsequent deaths remain questionable. Her aunts, the sweet-natured Hilda (Lucy Davis) and more militant Zelda (Miranda Otto), don’t explain much regarding her history and the purpose of devoting her life to “The Dark Lord,” something insidious forces are very eager to make happen.
Which side the aunts remain on and why is never all that clear. But they’re a delightful presence, as is Sabrina’s cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo), a warlock under house arrest tending to the Spellmans mortuary.
Early episodes deal explicitly with Sabrina negotiating time between her Hogwarts-like witching academy and her human friends, who get so little screen time that what impression they make can be reduced to what they represent: Jaz Sinclair’s Rosalind is the Black one and Lachlan Watson’s Susie is the non-binary one.
The series isn’t coy about intersectional touches or feminism. Dismantling the patriarchy, whether human or satanic, provides a lot of the more enjoyable fodder as the plot drags through the magical realm’s court cases, school initiations and other hijinks.
The halfway mark gets infinitely more enjoyable as some distracting subplots and mysteries are jettisoned and the show becomes more focused as the human and witching worlds begin to collide.
Lives are taken, the dead return, and Sabrina begins crossing lines with her magic, ready to get her hands bloody. She’s far more engaging when she starts spinning out of control and when what feels like real stakes (instead of time-wasting coven legalities) enter the picture.
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