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.

Review: How To Be Alone by Lane Moore

How To Be Alone: If You Want To, and Even If You Don’t

by Lane Moore

I feel as though there’s been a new school of memoir/nonfiction written by comedians which have been coming out over the past decade or more. There are other books by comedians which are comedic in nature, extended riffs, whereas these other books are often about the stories behind the comedy and what they talk about on stage. They’re about discussing the roots of what they do, their journey, and in some ways capture that distinction between what Hannah Gadsby in her special Nanette talked about, between jokes and stories. For me Jen Kirkman is just brilliant at this. I’m a big fan of her comedy, but I think both of her books (I Know What I’m Doing: And Other Lies I Tell Myself, especially) are simply excellent, being both laugh out loud funny but also darker, deeper, more intense, and display a different type and approach of storytelling.

Lane Moore is the latest person to do this with her book How To Be Alone: If You Want To, and Even If You Don’t. The collection of essays covers a lot of ground by the comedian-writer-actor-musician behind the band It Was Romance, the comedy show Tinder Live and other projects.

Moore had me at the title. I read a lot of books about being alone and what that means for the simple reason that I’m alone. And I use the word as Moore does which is that it’s not about being single which is a temporary relationship status, but instead something more. It’s something that I sometimes use in jest, but it’s not an accidental or casual word choice.

But I do occasionally use it in jest or in a flippant manner, and in her opening chapters Moore slaps the reader across the face by saying, no, do not be fucking flippant about this. Because she talks about her childhood, which was brutal and lonely on levels that a lot of us have never had to deal with. About a childhood that was harder than a lot of us had to deal with and hurts to read about.

There are two aspects though which make this less brutal for those of us who had relatively happy childhoods. One is simply the ways in which she has such great insight into herself and to the people around her. From the dynamics of teenage and pre-teen friendships, to how we make and nurture friendships to parenting and so much more. Also she mentions how the act of writing this book meant that she reached out to her mother and sister to talk about some of these events and it sounds as though writing the book has brought them closer together than they have perhaps ever been.

Moore also writes extensively about one relationship – and the long and messy aftermath. There’s a lot that’s heartbreaking about this relationship. But what’s stayed with me is how insightful Moore is in dissecting both of their behavior. The way that she’s spent a lot of time thinking about it, how this relationship does stand out in so many ways, and what it meant. What it continues to mean. Because for some people there is this one relationship in our lives that didn’t work out, but it was the one that hit us. The one that really affected us. The one that taught us a lot about ourselves. And it didn’t end in this happily ever after way. It ended in this messy way that’s left marks that take us some time to figure out.

There’s a chapter about her adventures in babysitting – both when she was a kid and then in New York as an adult. There’s a New Yorker Shouts and Murmurs piece that covers some of the same ground but in a comedic way, showing off some of her purely comedic voice and approach.

There’s a chapter talking about TV and which mostly consists of her sharing her love for Jim Halpert from The Office and talks about her tendency to ship characters on TV shows which made me go, okay, fine, great, but then she mentioned Jaye and Eric from Wonderfalls as one of those couples she loves. And this is one of those things that I think is a good lesson with people as well as writers which is that one so often encounters in life and in works of art these elements and digressions and aspects of the work which is less than interesting, which doesn’t enthrall us, which makes us go eh. Chapters like this where it’s easy to skim to get to what we want. But what interest us in this person or in this artist is contained within there.

Plus she cited Wonderfalls. I mean Moore is so clearly my people.

Besides which she talks about the obnoxious disgusting bi-phobic bullshit that we find all over the place from all sorts of people. But not much. One could write a book about about being open to so many people but being rejected in such a nasty way by so many. But that’s another story and another book. To be honest I liked the fact that she didn’t make the book about that, though I’m sure some people will react differently.

The final essay in the book is titled “How To Be Alone” and if the earlier chapters in the book veered between scenes I couldn’t relate to and those to which I related so intensely, this chapter made me almost cry a few times. First of all it involves traveling alone, which I love doing and to the point where I struggle sometimes traveling with other people. Some trips have been the best of my life and some have been depressing, but I love traveling alone and any joyous tribute to the people you meet doing that is perfect in my book.

This last chapter is also where she tries to say, embrace being alone. Enjoy sleeping alone. Travel alone. Be weird. Be yourself. Do whatever you want. Encouraging us to see being alone as an opportunity. And as someone who deals with depression, I know what she means, and I also know what it means to be unable to think in those ways. Moore is saying to go and do what you want and find a new way to be. To take exercise classes and be open with your feelings to people. But also what it means to need physical affection when single and how hard that is for so many of us. She writes about getting a dog and how that changed her. She writes about her career triumphs, which are beyond what she ever would have dreamed. She writes honestly about how that doesn’t mean that dealing with depression and longing and sadness doesn’t go away. But that we know that life is hard and depression will return and that being in a relationship won’t solve any of our problems. The only solution is to simply be ourselves and grab at things and do what we love and what we think will bring joy. It’s a knowledge that comes from hard won sadness and depression and loneliness, but that’s the only answer. It’s not necessarily a comfort, but it is the answer.

“You take all that love you keep giving to selfish idiots and try to throw some of it in the general direction of your own heart and you pray even a little bit of it sticks there.”

I don’t know how it’s possible to read the book without falling in love with Moore a little. Without wanting to give her a hug and go drinking together. (Or at least attend the next Tinder Live show she does...more information of which can be found on her website). But if you can’t, then sitting alone in a room with a drink one night, and after turning that last page feel a little bit better, a little more connected, and a little less alone, that’s not bad, either.

Related:

Hard To Love: Essays and Confessions by Briallen Hopper. I interviewed Hopper about her book for The Rumpus which is about friendship and love and life outside of marriage. I feel like Hopper and Moore would be friends. Maybe, maybe not – I don’t know either of them – but I feel pretty certain that their books would be friends and go drinking together.

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing. A book about being single and lonely in a new city and through it interrogating art and artists who have been lonely and solitary and how their lives played out and how some of their work tries to visualize this idea of loneliness in very different ways. I love all of Laing’s work but here she really captures in her own story some of the loneliness of living in a new city and she managed to make something from it in a way that’s really thoughtful and inspiring.

The Winter Sister by Megan Collins. Not a Review.

A few random thoughts about The Winter Sister by Megan Collins (Atria Books, 2019).

I have a great affection for dysfunctional protagonists who are forced to return to their hometowns. Though maybe because I am one.

The fog that Sylvie is in rang very true to me. Also the ways that this fog can lift, be penetrated, in ways that are not directly tied to good things happening. It was a solid portrait of depression.

It’s set in a small Connecticut town, and while the dynamics of a very divided and heavily class and status conscious town rang true, in other ways the town as Sylvie lived and experienced it felt a little too small and not claustrophobic enough. Meaning that she keeps meeting people related to the murder case but in a small town wouldn’t a lot of people know her, know her mother, and wouldn’t she feel those eyes watching and judging her at all times? Or maybe I’m projecting…

There’s a former detective who sits down with Sylvie to talk about the case and the whole scene, while it was important as to the structure of the book, it was also frustrating. The whole “there’s too much red tape and not enough stock put into hunches and gut feelings” nonsense. No surprise that these cops were unable to solve a murder

I’m unsure about Annie. The portrait of the mother as this fragile and deeply damaged person feels a bit too one dimensional for the large and central role she plays in the book. Of course Sylvie is the central character and the book is about her, but the book conveyed too little sense of who the mother was. Maybe some of that is simply POV, but it felt unsatisfying.

In broad strokes, though, I found the mother-daughter dynamic worked. Maybe some of that is because we never really know our parents. Though of course it’s one thing for Sylvie to not understand her mother, it’s another thing for the reader not to.

In some regards, I had a similar response to the identity of the murderer. The book takes place in a small town and there is a limited cast of characters who could have been responsible. The killer wasn’t just going to be a random stranger we had never met before or something like that.

But in some ways that is the problem with writing small town murder cases. Most murders are committed by people they know. Most murders are committed because of a handful of reasons. And so there were only a few possibilities. Well, there was only one really, even if it wasn’t immediately clear.

The optimistically inclined ending works (is that a phrase? I’m using it) because I know what it feels like to come out of that fog of depression and exhaustion. And Collins doesn’t fall into the trap that things will improve, that everything is looking up, or even that the guilty party will ultimately be held accountable. The journey of the book is more emotional than it is about solving the crime. Which I like.

Overall, a good book. A good first book. And I want to see what Collins does next.