Adam Speight looks back at the first part of Netflix’s new reboot series.
Following the reimagining of Archie Comics’ Riverdale as a live action TV series in 2017, speculation and rumours began to emerge about the potential for an appearance from Sabrina Spellman in the series. The character gained massive popularity in the 90s for Melissa Joan Hart’s portrayal in the sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch and there was a clear appetite for a return to the character. Netflix obliged and ordered a full-fledged series revolving around the teenage witch but with a twist.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a bold take on a much-loved character. The series attempts to walk the line between the youthful comradery and small-town horror vibes demonstrated in a show like Stranger Things and the eccentric style of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Over the course of ten episodes (and a Christmas special), we are invited into an enchanting world seen through the eyes of a young woman eager to not succumb to its demands. Sabrina faces challenges in her normal high school life alongside the fiercer challenges of being a young witch, from the mundanity of arguments with her boyfriend to the horrors of confronting a soul-eating worm demon.
The first few episodes of the season start off well. The show does a solid job of re-introducing us to new versions of old characters alongside some new ones. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina really excels when it is building its world. Whether it’s about high school life or lessons in magic, abstract concepts are often explained through exposition, but it never feels out of place. Strange things are happening so having characters teaching or advising each other makes perfect narrative sense.
The show begins to falter in how it addresses the wildly varying stakes. There’s often quite a large change in tone from scene to scene. One scene will show Sabrina embracing her life as a witch – taking part in cheesy yet fun to watch rituals – whilst the next will be a pretty run-of-the-mill conversation between her friends about school bullies. The problem lies in the lack of clarity between what the show wants us to take seriously and what the show is playing for laughs. The juxtaposition appears intentional, showing us the hardships Sabrina faces in balancing her two lives. Unfortunately, this often contributes to a lack of tension when the more serious moments come around. You don’t know if the consequences are about to be shrugged off or viewed as a horrifying threat by the characters.
Kiernan Shipka’s (Mad Men) central performance as Sabrina provides much of what holds the show together but, consequently, is the character that suffers most from the confusing stakes. Compared to Melissa Joan Hart’s more whimsical take on the character, this Sabrina is extremely headstrong, rebellious and determined to forge her own path. However, this doesn’t make her immutable to the challenges she faces. In the more dramatic moments, Shipka performs outstandingly, conveying complex emotion in the most outlandish of circumstances.
Unfortunately, the performance and character are often let down by the storytelling. The misaligned tension means that sometimes Sabrina appears to overreact to minor issues yet be extraordinarily unfazed by more threatening scenarios. The character is also let down by the lazy way the show attempts to create metaphors or reflect real world scenarios – such as the hypocrisy of promising free will whilst asking for your commitment to a set of rules by the ruling class depicted through Sabrina’s coven – The Church of Night. The series often lingers on a point just long enough for you to internally exclaim “oh, that’s like *insert contemporary issue* in real life” before putting little thought into addressing it. Sabrina is depicted as a fierce leader and having the story more thoughtfully address modern issues through her reaction to them could take the show to a higher level.
Despite much of the focus being on the titular character, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina doesn’t shy away from putting the spotlight on other characters. Ms Wardwell (Michelle Gomez) and Zelda Spellman (Miranda Otto) stand out in different ways but commonality lies in the way in which both become fascinating due to the clouded reasoning behind their actions. In particular, Zelda feels like a character you are really meant to find loathsome – scorning and stifling Sabrina at every turn. However, the series slowly reveals motivations behind her strict personality – giving her one of the more interesting arcs in Part one.
The final episodes ramp up the drama and nail the balance between the quirky and the Gothic horror. The issues regarding stakes fade away too – with Sabrina’s mortal companions becoming much more intertwined with the darker side of the narrative later on. This streamlines the grander story and makes for more easily digestible viewing. The finale reaches a fitting conclusion – wrapping up many of the threads that have been placed throughout the series and showing how the events will change Sabrina in the series to come.
Many people were excited and surprised when Chilling Adventures of Sabrina suddenly dropped a Christmas special late last year. However, it’s probably best they hadn’t. Series creator and showrunner Roberto Aguire-Sacasa revealed to The Wrap that the Christmas episode was created on a bit of a whim after shooting the first episode for Part two of the series. Unfortunately, this really shows. Side plots are introduced and wrapped up over short scenes then, more disappointingly, quite a huge return/interaction is wasted on this cobbled together special.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina feels like a show with great promise. The series challenges the viewer to accept a dark and mystical world whilst also investing in the standard problems of a small-town high school. When the show gets this balance right and also combines its fun, quirkiness with its more chilling aspects it really succeeds. Regrettably, as of yet, the show hasn’t quite been able to consistently nail the balance yet – which makes for a show that can leave you wondering if you or the characters care about what’s happening at all.