TV Review: ‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ will have you under its darkly fun spell

Courtesy of Dread Central

Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a radical reimagining of the characters made popular by the sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Make no mistake, though: this show’s voice is completely original. It’s a darker, hellish take on Sabrina Spellman that leans into the mythology of witchcraft. That’s also what makes it far more entertaining and intriguing.

In the pilot episode of Chilling Adventures, we find Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka), a half-witch, half-mortal on the eve of her 16th birthday. On that day, she is required to undergo a “Dark Baptism” where she must sign her name in blood in the “Book of the Beast,” promising her soul to the dark lord and unlocking her full potential as a witch. However, Sabrina’s position between this world and the mortal world will force her to make some difficult decisions. Will she choose the path of night, as her Aunt Zelda (Miranda Otto), Aunt Hilda (Lucy Davis) and cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) have, or will she choose her true love Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch) and best friends, Susie (Lachlan Watson) and Roz (Jaz Sinclair)?

Much of the buzz leading up to the release of Chilling Adventures focused on its connections to the popular CW show, Riverdale. Sabrina’s “chilling adventures” take place in Greendale, just one town away from Riverdale. While both shows have a timeless quality to them, they are largely discrete from one another. In fact, Chilling Adventures shows much more promise via stronger writing and a sharper focus. Riverdale, in some ways, still feels like it’s struggling to find its central voice, resulting in a lack of unity between seasons. Although Chilling Adventures is only 10 episodes in, each chapter feels like it’s building towards something. The world abides by a structure which makes it feel well-realized, making it a bonafide, binge-worthy hit for Netflix.

At its center is a star-making performance from Shipka. She embodies Sabrina with such confidence and wit; there are echoes of Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy Summers — the highest praise I could offer a young performer. She anchors the show, and vibes well with each member of the cast. It’s utterly enthralling to watch this character toe the line between the path of light and the path of night, as they say, and Shipka is directly responsible for that.

The show dives into some dark, gory horrors, but it sure has a blast doing it. With the possible exception of Shipka, virtually no one seems to be having more fun on this show than Michelle Gomez as Ms. Wardwell, Sabrina’s mysterious high school teacher with a hidden agenda of her own. It’s a dark, commanding presence that oozes charisma and sinister undercurrents. Other highlights include Perdomo’s Ambrose, who often conspires with Sabrina despite his familiarity with witchcraft, and Tati Gabrielle’s Prudence — a young witch who revels in the powers of witchcraft, which often puts her and Sabrina at odds. Characters like these truly highlight all the possibilities of this world.

Although the show maintains a clear focus overall, there are some loose threads that feel largely sidelined at the moment. One of them pertains to Harvey Kinkle. Lynch is charming and adorable in the role, and while Harvey and Sabrina’s relationship feels genuine, Harvey is relegated to being Sabrina’s perfect boyfriend for the first half of the season. We get some interesting cracks in his armor in later episodes — particularly in a storyline involving his brother, Tom, as well as a revelation about the Kinkle family’s complicated history with witches. However, I would have liked more character development out of Harvey.

This also applies to Sabrina’s mortal friends, Roz and Susie. As the stakes in the show ramp up, Roz begins to experience eerie visions — an ability called “cunning,” which seems to be an allusion to the “shine” that many of Stephen King’s characters possess. This ability proves somewhat useful for Sabrina, but the show needs to expand more on that, because it’s a fascinating ability. As for Susie, an apparition of their ancestor appears to them. While this storyline coincides nicely with many of the struggles Susie faces, it really doesn’t go anywhere, especially in relation to the season’s primary story arc. More generally, the show has more room to play with Sabrina’s magical abilities. We get glimpses of some pretty, well, wicked powers, especially as the show presents more information about Sabrina and her family’s coven and what it means to sign the Book of the Beast, but I hope they dive even deeper (and darker). Based on the trajectory of season one, that idea seems to be largely in the works, but we’ll have to wait and see.

What is also promising is the progressive nature of the show. Chilling Adventures hits the mark where similar female-empowering reboots like Charmed miss a bit. The show is diverse, intersectional and has powerful messages, but it does so in a way that is organic to the characters. There is arguably nothing more vital than representation on television shows — especially ones like this with mass appeal — but I also believe it has to be done in service of the characters rather than to make a political statement, because that is the root of true authenticity and diversification of content. Characters like Susie, Sabrina’s non-binary friend, or Ambrose, Sabrina’s pansexual cousin, challenge norms on gender and sexuality by conveying their truths on screen. Sabrina herself proves to be an active ally in support of her friends — not because the show wants to appear “woke,” but because it is simply the right thing to do. The show proves to be an excellent example of how to empower characters authentically.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina presents an exciting new world for Netflix to play around in. It does not shy away from the darker elements of witchcraft, nor does it pull punches on its scares, but what makes the show stand out is its compelling protagonist and the rich mythology it’s building. The season finale places Sabrina in a very interesting position to pick up for season two (currently filming), so I highly recommend you queue this up on Netflix as soon as you can.

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