SPOILER ALERT: This article contains details about all episodes of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
There seems to be a trend in Hollywood of giving any and all IP a “dark reimagining” — specifically material that is normally seen in a more buoyant and hokey light. Shows like Riverdale and Titans have gone this route in order to make it edgy, slick, sexy, and hip. Revamping classics to fit 21st-century sensibilities is a novel idea, but shows can easily fall into a trap of gimmicks and desperation. Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina cleverly avoids those trappings because its source material is a perfect fit for a “dark reimagining.”
Based on the Archie comics and set in the town of Greendale, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina kicks off with the titular Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) on the verge of her 16th birthday — but it’s not an ordinary birthday. Half-witch and half-mortal, Sabrina must make a definitive choice between the two worlds. If she chooses to live her life as a witch she must attend the Academy of Unseen Arts and say goodbye to her mortal life at Baxter High School with her committed and endearing boyfriend Harvey (Ross Lynch) and her BFFs: the ambitious Roz (Jaz Sinclair) and the mousy Susie (Lachlan Watson). If she chooses to denounce her witchy side, that won’t bode well with The Church of Night, the coven to which her family belongs.
Considering her late father was one of the most powerful witches, her Aunt Zelda (Miranda Otto), a witch traditionalist, thinks Sabrina’s decision is a no-brainer. She wants her to dive deep into her witchy roots while her quirky and more free-spirited Aunt Hilda is more sympathetic and understanding with how tough of a choice this is for Sabrina. All the while, her cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) serves as a mediator and sounding board for Sabrina.
By the third episode of the 10-episode season premiere, Sabrina makes her choice, and on the day of her Dark Baptism to become a full-blown witch, she learns more about her witch father and mortal mother which derails her plans and, in turn, throws the Church of the Night and its leader Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle) for a loop. As events unfold, it is decided by Blackwood and the Dark Lord (yup, Satan) that Sabrina will have one foot in the witch world while attending classes at the Academy of Unseen Arts and maintain her life as a Baxter High School student. She, like Hannah Montana, has the best of both worlds, right? Well, not really. As she tries to balance her witch and mortal life, things get crazed and Sabrina tends to make her life more complicated and, at times, even worse.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is essentially what I wanted Riverdale to be — and I say that with no shade thrown at the CW teen drama which is a Twin Peaks-meets-Dawson’s Creek retooling of the Archie comics. Showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa leans into the fictitious occult culture of the witch with and isn’t chained to a PG-13 environment (although, it could be argued that Riverdale is practically R-rated). This allows him to crank the dial up enough so that it builds this wildly sensational world of spells, curses, witches, astral projecting and warlocks (built by the visionary production designer Lisa Soper) for us to eat up every single delicious morsel.
When episode 5 comes around, the series really starts to unravel with its pulpy goodness as Sabrina and her family are stuck in a nightmare controlled by a demon — which seems very reminiscent of Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. It’s a bonkers fever dream where Sabrina, Zelda, Hilda, and Ambrose are tortured and driven insane. It perfectly illustrates what Aguierre-Sacasa wants this show to be: a heightened reality that has just enough crazy so that we aren’t turned off and tonally parallel enough with Riverdale so that the two may crossover further down the road. Even then, there is restraint so the show maintains a sense of emotional groundedness and doesn’t turn into a self-indulgent mess.
As Sabrina, Shipka is a spunky orb equal parts determination and delight as the titular teen witch. Reminiscent of a young Tim Burton-era Winona Ryder, she embodies the character with charisma and millennial-grade teen angst. Aguirre-Sacasa and the Sabrina team sculpt her with millennial teen flair making her curious, free-thinking, and idealistic, which paves the way for her to make poor life decisions…as teens do. In fact, Sabrina does exactly what is expected of a teenager would do if she had magical powers: she means well, but is reckless at the same time. At one point, she abuses her power. The show does a realistic job of the typical teenage life of making mistakes, being moody and, of course, hormonal.
The Aunties are an absolute joy to watch and compliment Shipka. Otto slays as Zelda is gorgeous mash-up of stern, by-the-book house mother and old Hollywood starlet while the brilliant Davis is perfect in every way as Hilda, portraying the eccentric, yet caring aunt all of us wish we had. With Zelda and Hilda doing the good aunt/bad aunt routine, Perdomo swaggers in with his chill and performance as Ambrose, the cool cousin that always knows best and always has your back.
It is clear that the entire cast is having as much fun as the show calls for with Michelle Gomez leading the charge as the possessed teacher Mary Wardell — who is always ambiguous with her intentions with Sabrina. Tati Gabrielle serves some Mean Girls realness as Sabrina’s witchy frenemy, Prudence, while Coyle hovers over like a dark cloud of doom in his role as Blackwood. And — don’t be ridiculous if you think I wouldn’t mention how much of a joy it was to see Perfect Strangers icon Bronson Pinchot as the Baxter High School principal Hawthorne.
When the cauldron boils down to it, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, like its Riverdale cousin, is a teen drama. The only difference is the heightened sense of reality and the incorporation of the occult adds another dimension of dark fun. It’s gothic window dressing for teen issues of bullying, high school romance, the good and bad of familial relationships, and exploring one’s identity in the formative teenage years. To add to that, there is an appropriate allegory of female empowerment that is prevalent in the series — but it’s not so overt which doesn’t make it gratuitous.
In the last three episodes, there are moments when the series starts to fray at the edges with some of its teen drama hokiness and rampant levels of witchy wonder, but it still manages to maintain its spell. With its very festive retro comic opening credits sequence, the teen drama cleverly inserts pop culture horror references and imagery while taking us on this journey — but they aren’t gimmicky in-your-face moments of nostalgia. The series already claims its cut from the same cloth as Rosemary’s Baby, which is very evident in the cult-ish (and at one point, cannibalistic) scenes with the Church of Night. But throughout, there are other subtle nods — whether intentional or not. At one point Sabrina and her squad seem like they are banding together to fight some supernatural dark evil a la Buffy the Vampire Slayer and there is a hint of 1989’s Pet Sematary when Susie’s uncle haunts the kids like Pascow. There is even one scene when the same uncle is tied to the bed and the aunties, Ms. Wardell and Sabrina are performing an exorcism on him a la The Exorcist (obviously) — complete with projectile vomiting! And there is definitely a nod to A Nightmare on Elm Street with all the haunted dreams and a blatant reference when we see Harvey getting tormented while laying on his bed with his headphones and a cut-off shirt — just like Johnny Depp in the first installment of the Wes Craven franchise.
Don’t get it twisted, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina does not take away anything from the legendary TGIF classic Sabrina the Teenage Witch with Melissa Joan Hart — nothing can replace that morsel of joy. The Netflix teen drama is a different creature and although it may not have a talking cat named Salem (although he is in the new series without a voice), it adds another layer of the folklore of the teen witch that first appeared in the Archie comics in 1962. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a fresh take that conjures the spirit of the original with contemporary flair. It’s a dark reimagining done right.