Most girls looking forward to their sweet-sixteenth just want to party and hang out with their gal pals. Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka), however, isn’t like most girls. As an orphaned half-witch, half-human, she’s in a curious and fraught existentialist position. Boys and dating are the least of her woes.
With Halloween approaching, the Baxter High pupil is at something of a crossroads (which is handy, because Beelzebub is entwined in her fate). She has two choices: pledge her allegiance and soul to Satan (as per the Dark Baptism, the rites-of-passage ritual for those set to receive fully-charged witch powers), sign the Book of the Beast in her own blood and head off to the School of Unseen Arts – “A posh boarding school in Connecticut”, as the show’s running joke puts it to inquisitive non-witch folk – or carry on living la vida normal among her friends in Greendale, growing old naturally and getting serious with boyfriend Harvey (Ross Lynch), who’s a sensitive young lad (read: also a bit of a milquetoast). For sure, Sabrina’s got a lot on her plate.
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Riverdale spin-off is a world (make that a galaxy) away from the light-hearted 1990s sitcom starring Melissa Joan Hart. Some elements are familiar – Zelda, Hilda, Salem the cat – and it does keep the former incarnation’s retconned ‘half-witch, half-human’ plot device (a key change from the original 1960s Archie Comics scenario), but the vibe it goes for (and achieves with aplomb) is a riveting mashup of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and – quite surprisingly – Harry Potter.
The main success is Kiernan Shipka’s performance as the teenage witch traversing the world of the living and the dead. It’s a grounded, layered, likeable portrait of teen rebellion and emotional conflict, and her line in folksy turns of phrase is a clever way to reflect on her rural environment and upbringing. Far from Buffy-like California sass and delivering dialogue dripping in postmodernist irony, she’s a New England lass realising the world (and netherworld) is a daunting and scary place. Though, an early line referring to Greendale’s woods-dwelling malefic witches, known as the Weird Sisters (a name lifted from Bram Stoker’s Dracula), as “succubitches” boasts a Buffy-esque quality.
With a determined spirit and boldness, Sabrina Spellman v.2018 represents a smart 21st century updating, and a decidedly feminist one. Yes, Sabrina is the wokest witch around, which makes her travails relevant not just to a younger audience, but also reflects modern concerns in the horror show that is Trump’s America, as well as important themes of empowerment and sisterhood. It’s blindingly obvious from the opening episodes Satan and God represent The Patriarchy and Sabrina’s resistance to signing over her life to the whims and demands of supernatural figures, clearly identified as male, screams ‘political message’. The struggle to find her own way forward is reflected in her constant battles with the older generation. While Sabrina’s Aunt Zelda (a totally fab Miranda Otto, who plays Aunt Zee like she’s come from the pages of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel) and Aunt Hilda (Lucy Davis) are both obedient to the Dark Lord and male-domineering traditions, they’re self-aware enough to recognise the tragedy in going along to get along in a man’s world; Sabrina, meanwhile, dukes it out with school bullies and intellectual censorship (school boards banning certain books).
The production design is high value, with fantastic interiors and exteriors lit in a classical horror style. Aguirre-Sacasa’s updating of the Archie comics is already indebted to horror movies, with its eye-catching use of neon lighting and gothic locales such as Fox Forest and the Blossom mansion. (Don’t forget: Riverdale is the next town over and yes, indeed, it gets a name-check very early on.) Sabrina, as a show about the otherworldly, can – and does – go for full-on gothic terror and while there is a very clever and subtle visual continuity with its sister show, in terms of those key flavours and moods, Sabrina largely avoids neon lighting in favour of an autumnal look – all muddy earth-tones and flickering shadows. If Riverdale’s lighting schema is Dario Argento’s Suspiria, Sabrina’s is John Carpenter.
The assembled cast are uniformly great, too. Richard Coyle gives it his best Lucius Malfoy as Father Blackwood, Satan’s main representative upstairs (Earth), who battles with Sabrina because she’s constantly not doing what she’s told. Otto and Davis are a delightful double act as Sabrina’s worried and often controlling aunts, while newcomer Chance Perdomo (as cousin Ambrose Spellman) settles well into his character. Another highlight is Michelle Gomez as Ms. Wardell, Sabrina’s favourite high-school teacher, who unfortunately gets possessed by villainous Madam Satan very early in Episode 1 and spends countless classroom hours attempting to manipulate her student. Gomez plays her baddie role with pantomime relish.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina – like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, like Harry Potter – is a coming-of-age saga with a rich and well-written mythology. Like those titles, too, Aguirre-Sacasa’s latest show values friendship as the lynchpin of survival in a hostile and constantly threatening world. While we await the third season of Stranger Things in 2019, Sabrina will provide all your supernatural-drama kicks.
Funny, dark, politically-charged, weird, subversive, spooky, occasionally violent and always compelling, this reboot is another big winner for Netflix.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: Season 1 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.