Review: Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

First of all, Sabrina has nothing to do with either witchcraft or Satanism.

It’s always odd to talk about reality in terms of science fiction and fantasy, because of course it’s not real, but it is supposed to feel real. It’s supposed to feel plausible or believable. It’s supposed to make sense in the context of the world that’s presented. This is what “World building” means. Sabrina is trying to be ambitious and stylized, but it also keep failing because it’s unable to simply be its own weird thing, but it also isn’t real.

And if I thought this were intentional and trying to reflect the fact that she’s half-witch, half-human and torn between these two sides, then maybe it would work. But it never feels intentional, with each having a very distinct or planned aesthetic and sensibility and the ways that she struggles to move between, instead it just feels odd.

The series is directly based on the comic book, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who is also the executive producer of the TV show and wrote four and co-wrote two episodes. The comic is a strange and beautiful thing. The artwork from Robert Hack is gorgeous and the story is weird and creepy and strange. If you’re reading after reading the thousands of Sabrina comics stories of the Melissa Joan Hart sitcom, it’s a shock. The cannibalism (the aunts run a funeral parlor but in the comic they sometimes eat “long pig” which for those who don’t know, means human). The murders. The deaths. The cameo from Ann-Margaret. And those aren’t even the weirdest, creepiest parts. It’s a strange hypnotizing spell and I’ll be honest, I didn’t see a lot of the twists and I don’t quite know where the comic is heading. Though at this point, given how infrequently issues have been appearing, I’m unsure if it will ever get there.

The TV show is based on the comic, but it is very much its own thing. Even the opening credits don’t really capture the feel of the comic, though they do look comicbook-y and hand drawn.

I would like the show more if it included the credit “Sabrina the Teenage Witch was created by George Gladir and Dan DeCarlo.” Given that they, you know, created the character.

Of course the show is based on the comic series which Aguirre-Sacasa created which is based on the series that they created, but that feels belittling to not mention them. Both were it should be noted credited for creating the character in the credits of the live action 1990’s sitcom.

It’s also hard not to think that this is an intentional slight to the late DeCarlo. Though he worked for Archie Comics for decades, an argument over Josie and Pussycats when the movie was being made led to a lawsuit over the rights and the company never hired him for the rest of his life. In the history of comics, this is fairly typical.

The comic and the show remind me of Bewitched. Which reminds me of the Jimmy Stewart-Kim Novak film Bell, Book, and Candle. But Sabrina is Bewitched crossed with the teenage comics that Dan DeCarlo had been making for decades, with a witch (which is a heredity thing) living in the mortal world and complications ensue.

This is the same nonsense that’s perpetuated in Harry Potter and elsewhere, that only certain kinds of special people can do magic. Ordinary folk can’t. Which is of course nonsense – and also makes no sense. Because literally the entire reason why so many women were accused of witchcraft – and why it was so terrifying – was that anyone could do magic. That was literally the point.

Smarter and more thoughtful people than I have pointed out how Harry Potter is very much a metaphor for the British class system. That the special kids are sent away to boarding school where they can meet and marry each other, and are taught that the non-magical people in the world are essentially another species. The “bad” people think that ordinary people should be killed or treated like cattle, while the “enlightened” people think that ordinary humans should have a separate but unequal world, as long as the humans don’t get uppity.

This idea of class very much carries over in Sabrina, but it seems unconscious, or at least, there’s no evidence on screen that the writers have in any way interrogated it. There’s a way that the Spellmans represent a certain “old money” sensibility when it comes to both humans and witches, but nothing is done with this idea. They’re property rich and run a funeral home and have a large house filled with books and various odds and ends. On the witch side, Sabrina’s father was a major figure in the church, and both aunts attended elite schools (though only one enjoyed it), but neither has much standing in the church, though that may be because of gender.

They live in Greendale, which is a mining town but there’s one mine and it has a single entrance, which resembles those from old 19th Century frontier towns. (Or movie sets) Then of course there was a reason that mine entrances looked like that. Here the first time it was on screen – and every time afterwards – I keep being pulled out of the scene because it just looks fake. And not Ray Harryhausen creature or guy in a rubber suit Godzilla fake, but just fake.

The show has a similar problem whenever Satan appears on screen.

Also, the owner of the mine is Harvey’s family and they have to work in the mines digging coal? Leaving aside the fact that the grandfather lives somewhere else and the drunk father is supposedly running the operation, he send his sons to work in the mines? It’s weird. I say this because in reality that’s not what mine owners do.

Questions of gender certainly come into play. The hierarchy of the witches and how it plays out never really gets explained in a way that makes much sense. Sabrina’s father ran the coven now Father Blackwood (played by Richard Coyle) does, who talks about passing the leadership role to his newborn son. So how did he become head? Is it based on merit? Is there an aristocracy of sorts? Where does Aunt Hilda fit into this hierarchy?

I suppose my problem with comic books – and by extension comic book movies and TV shows – is that the world building tends to be, well, incomplete let’s say. There’s a certain default to being set in our present moment but at the same time, it’s fantastic and as events pile upon them, then it can no longer be like the world outside our window but so many comics function as though they do. Or some do and some don’t and that creates an uneasy and awkward continuity.

The first part ended where one part would have to end. The whole season (sorry, “part”) was about Sabrina living this divided life – part human and part witch, shuffling between the two worlds. In the final episode of the first part she signs her name in the Devil’s book and turns her back on her friends and the human world.

In the second part Sabrina admits to Aunt Hilda why this was. That she knew that what happened in the finale to part one wasn’t the last bad thing to happen, but a lot more was coming and she shut off her friends because she didn’t want them anywhere near her when it happened. That she was doing it for their protection.

Now admittedly this is the sort of self-sacrifice, I can’t be happy because I have a destiny kind of speech that one hears on just about every cop show, on every big fantasy story, in all those chosen one narratives. So there’s nothing new about it. It is tbh the kind of speech I would have loved to give as a teenager. Angsty and passionate, and maybe it’s because I find it annoying and overwrought when half the cops on half the cop shows in America give that speech, it fell a little flat here. Don’t get me wrong it worked in one sense, and once she admitted it, her aunt said, go. Which is what she needed. To be pushed or prodded into the proper action.

But I think that it also illuminates one of the problems with the show, particularly in the second half. The aunts occupy a role of parent-guide-teacher role to Sabrina but also in the way of stories about teenagers, they’re often tangential to what’s happening. This is Sabrina’s story but she’s busy trying to save the world and things like that. How did a handful of teenagers from some random small town end up in the midst of this? Of course they’re at the center of this because the show is about them, but like my earlier point about world building, it feels odd at times.

The world manages to feel very small, and somehow whenever the story is opened up and references are made to other places (the show never leaves Greendale), there is a strangeness because somehow everything is about this town. Not because people are drawn there, but simply because being there makes them important and capable to be a part of this epic battle.

Of course one way to make this smallness work is to go a little crazy with it. The comic book series on which the show is based is truly insane in a way that the series never even tries to capture. But in the comic everything is happening in this crazy world and we just run with it. Here the setting and the tone is more ordinary and less heightened and so those moments where I think the show sought to be big and melodramatic and operatic so often fall short.

I mean Satan literally walks the earth. There are witches and witch hunters and apocalyptic visions and the romance between Lilith and Satan and then there’s more ordinary things and it never quite finds a way to balance and synthesize all of these elements and tones.

The first part at least has an operational theme. It’s about Sabrina being part of two worlds and the ways that she’s drawn to both. The problem is that the second part starts with her having chosen one, and has nothing to replace that operational theme with except plot. Which is fine, but honestly the internal politics of the coven isn’t especially compelling or interesting. I pointed out how I object to the way that the show (and so much else in pop culture) portrays witches. But one reason that we keep seeing this is because it functions as a great metaphor, as something relatable to so many people. But in the second season we move past that and I don’t think it was clear just what discarding that would do to the show and how important it was.

Because by the end of the second part, she’s back to being a part of the town, she has regained her friends, but it’s more about how circumstances have pulled them together. And of course the witches’ coven is destroyed, the school is no more, and so she’s a part of the human world by default, essentially. For all the ways in which the character is central, she’s at the heart of this battle with the devil and the fate of the world, but then these other aspects aren’t about her at all, it feels off.

That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of pleasures to be found in the show. The actors are fabulous and the writing gives them the chance to play a wide range showing off both their comedic sides and the darkest sides. (In Lucy Davis’s case, those two moods are disturbingly – but perfectly – close together). I think that Kiernan Shipka could go darker and more dramatic, and she could play the light hearted Sabrina if given one of the old sitcom scripts with equal ease.

Michelle Gomez is amazing. Michelle Gomez is always amazing. The Weird Sisters don’t do very much, but what they do, they do to perfection. Chance Perdomo as cousin Ambrose is fabulous. Lucy Davis is great.

One of the show’s greatest pleasures - the very best thing about the show to my mind - is Miranda Otto. Yes, Éowyn herself, sitting at the kitchen table with her cigarette holder is so perfectly droll, I don’t know what I want to see her in more – a period piece where she plays a matriarch as elegant as she is terrifying, a Sherlockian investigator annoyed at having to solve crimes and deal with people so much less clever than she (I’m picturing a cross between Nero Wolfe and Phryne Fisher), or Morticia Addams. She would be a magnificent Morticia…

The closing moments of the final episode show that the coven is mostly destroyed, the handful who survived now living in the Spellman house and the prospect of Zelda organizing and running a matriarchal coven is an interesting idea with a lot of possibilities. Would they be torn between the structure that Zelda tries to craft and Sabrina’s more chaotic approach? Would they all have to attend public school, which could be interesting.

Of course the final scene of the season makes me think the next season will be all about these elaborate over the top magical adventures about rescuing her boyfriend in hell, so I think I’m done with it. This is one of those shows that I would enjoy a lot more if I were closer to the age of the characters, I think. Then I would see the teenage characters taking charge and playing leading roles, but as an adult, I’m left underwhelmed, and find a lot of the teenage stories to be troubling and uninteresting. Saving the world is all well and good, but I need a little more.