Review: Why ‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ will have you pulling for Kiernan Shipka’s conflicted teen witch
“Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” which begins streaming Friday on Netflix, continues the television darkening of Archie Comics, already well underway with the CW’s “Riverdale.” Like that series, it is created and shepherded by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who is also the chief creative officer of Archie Comics, which has been rebooting (and re-rebooting) its brands in print for awhile. Indeed, the show is based not on “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” (the comic and/or turn-of-the-century sitcom), but an already darker comic, also written by Aguirre-Sacasa and also called “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” which first appeared in 2014.
Welcome to “the town of Greendale, where it always feels like Halloween,” says Sabrina Spellman, by way of narration as the series begins. Sabrina is played by Kiernan Shipka, who was sad Sally Draper on “Mad Men.” It’s a few days before her 16th birthday, when she is slated to undergo her “dark baptism” in a clearing in a forest under an eclipsing blood-red moon, and become a full-fledged member of the Church of the Night. (“Dark baptism” is written on her calendar next to “Sweet 16!”)
She is also about to leave Baxter High for the Academy of the Unseen Arts, a fact she has been unable to face or to share with her friends Rosalind (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie (Lachlan Watson) and boyfriend Harvey (Ross Lynch). They call her ‘Brina. She is clearly the non-hierarchical leader of their little pack.
As in the comics and the sitcom, Sabrina lives with her unmarried aunts Zelda (Miranda Otto), slightly forbidding, and Hilda (Lucy Davis), warm and earthy. Here, they run a mortuary and funeral parlor out of their old-fashioned and otherworldly home. Also in the house are Sabrina’s cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo), who for 75 years has been under house arrest for something he’ll tell you about eventually, and her cat, Salem — not a talking puppet this time, but an enlivening presence nonetheless; I could do with more cat, in fact. (Ambrose appropriates some of sitcom Salem’s archness.)
Like Harry Potter, who stepped into the world the year after the “Sabrina” sitcom debuted in 1996, Sabrina is an orphan, and the product of a mixed marriage. (Dad: magic; mom: not.) Even though only half-supernatural, she is a Chosen One, destined to obsess and outperform her opponents and remake the world. In “Sabrina” as in “Potter,” witchcraft is something you’re born into, and go to a special school to refine, not a career just any interested person can choose. There are mean girls waiting at the academy, of course, whom she already knows by name: Prudence (Tati Gabrielle), Agatha (Adeline Rudolph) and Dorcas (Abigail Cowen).
The business of the 10-episode first season — another 10 episodes are already slated — is the question of whether Sabrina will go all in with witchery or stick with the mortals. It’s a little like “The Godfather” too in that respect.
In addition to being more “realistically” fantastic than its “Teenage” predecessors, the series also highlights the feminist elements you can find underpinning the original show, with an eye toward recent history. (“Topple the white patriarchy” are words spoken here.) After Susie, who is non-binary, is tormented by a pack of, wouldn’t you know it, football players, and gets no relief from the principal (Bronson Pinchot), Sabrina organizes “a club for young women, to meet and bolster each other,” which Roz names the Women’s Intersectional Cultural and Creative Assn. — that spells WICCA — to help her friends after she’s gone. Though that’s not all she organizes.
“Women protecting women,” she says, trying to explain it to Zelda. “You know, sort of like a coven.” But things are no less fraught in witch world: “I have reservations about saving myself for the Dark Lord,” says Sabrina. (He has a thing about novitiates being “undefiled.”) “Why does he get to decide what I do or don’t do with my body?”
Indeed, for a church that claims to offer freedom from rules and regulations, the “do what thou wilt” crowd is pretty caught up in them.
The show starts out bright, wanders a little through the middle and barrels toward an ending that leaves you asking the next season to hurry up and get here. Ten hours leaves time to play, and though the long-arc threads are never dropped, you also get a reverse turn on “The Exorcist” (a teenage girl chasing the demons from a middle-aged man), a “Nightmare on Elm Street” number and a kind of legal procedural that brings in Daniel Webster, not exactly the character from Stephen Vincent Benét’s short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” but a reference made to nod at knowingly. I am pretty sure I caught too a passing reference to the Vincent Price horror movie “The Abominable Dr. Phibes.”
As much a star of the show as Shipka is Michelle Gomez, who plays a top-shelf demon disguised as Sabrina’s teacher Miss Wardwell (though her job seems to consist entirely of conferences with Sabrina). “Doctor Who” fans will know Gomez as Missy, the female regeneration of the villainous Master, and a character not a million miles, or even 10, from the one she plays here, dispatched to keep Sabrina’s feet on “the road to perdition.”
She’s funny, even as she vamps and fumes, and seems always to float a few inches above the ground; it’s as if she’s drunk on her borrowed body. Miss Wardwell is frightening because you like her even at her nastiest, and she can get pretty nasty — unlike, say, Richard Coyle’s Father Blackwood, High Priest in the Church of Night and headmaster at the Unseen academy, who just seems like an affected creep, whatever mood he’s in.
Shipka is best when Sabrina’s mortal side is in play, when she’s getting silly or excited with her friends, or bucking the satanic system. She has a lightness, a petite perkiness that happily echoes Melissa Joan Hart, TV’s original, all-comedy Sabrina. I wasn’t always convinced by the darker passengers the script assigned her — though, to be sure, the dark is what this “Chilling Adventures” is mostly about. Still, I was invested enough to feel anxious about her inevitable bad choices; I wanted her to be all right, not merely to win.
‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’
When: Any time, starting Friday
Rated: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd
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