Théo Verzeroli reviews Netflix’s reboot of the iconic 90s sitcom.
Sabrina: “I want freedom and power.”
Prudence: “He’ll never give you that. The Dark Lord. The thought of you, of any of us, having both terrifies him.”
Sabrina: “Why is that?”
Prudence: “He’s a man, isn’t he?”
After the 90’s sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Netflix takes the famous Archie Comics universe over in a teenage-horror reboot which can only extend the Halloween atmosphere: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
Composed of ten episodes of around fifty minutes each, Sabrina takes place in an already-known universe: the one of Riverdale, the successful drama-thriller which started in 2017 on the CW and Netflix. Thus, the show sets itself in Greendale, a small, calm town on the other side of the river – but one which is actually a foundation of a witch world.
Sabrina (very well played by the young Kiernan Shipka of Mad Men) is a fifteen year old girl living as a half-mortal-half-witch in a mansion with aunts Hilda (Lucy Davis, Wonder Woman) and Zelda (Miranda Otto, The Lord of the Rings), and cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo). She has a simple life, constantly by the side of her two best friends Roz (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie (Lachlan Watson), and especially her boyfriend Harvey (Ross Lynch, Austin & Ally).
The story opens on the day before Sabrina’s sixteenth birthday. On that day she will have to make a choice between her powers and family, and her mortal friends and lover. Torn, Sabrina goes looking for answers which could help her decide – but she discovers very quickly that becoming a complete witch includes giving her soul to the Devil. Sabrina would receive her full potential of power, but also be left as servant to the Devil, at his mercy.
The producers use this dilemma very well, pushing Sabrina to question herself on power, freedom, her true desires, and especially the distinction between good and evil. Indeed it is said from the beginning that witches get their powers from Satan, but do not want to hurt anybody, exiling themselves from the mortal world. Sabrina thus has to make an even more difficult choice: between the truth of her feelings and the morality of them.
But all these great concepts are seen through the eyes of a teenager who is only sixteen. This is essential, as it permits a cheesiness which softens the witches’ world’s darkness. Again, this is well done by the show-runners, who use the high school as a place to develop different elements. First of all, Sabrina is a modern witch: she and her friends create a society which functions to discreetly insert themes of feminism and gender-progression. This comes in tandem to the natural feminism of the supernatural world, a direct result of the fact that power is owned by women. Furthermore, high school is the way by which the villain manipulates Sabrina, taking the appearance of one of her teachers. But before anything else, school is the place where Sabrina can be who she truly is: a teenager in love. This is what forms her humanity, and her biggest strength against the Devil.
Sabrina is a complex and conflicted character, and this is reflected in her costume design. Loosely derived from Red Riding Hood, her clothes contrast with her determination and dark witch power, but also perfectly complete the show’s aesthetic – timeless but rooted in 60’s – 70’s Gothic.
In this world which seems very simplistic, the main characters evolve in a much more interesting way; so as to make us discover their true nature. Sabrina’s family is a perfect example. Aunts Zelda and Hilda are both very responsible, even though Zelda is more authoritarian than her sister. They are both strong women but can still admit their weaknesses. The High Priest (Richard Coyle) perfectly embodies the ambiguity of religious institutions. Seen as a Devil’s representative, he has his human weaknesses and can sometimes lead the dogma and its believers to mistakes. Ambrose, Sabrina’s cousin, is a new character, created by the producers in order to divorce the diabolical warlock prisoner from the original show’s black cat, whose ability to speak would have been out of place in The Chilling Adventure‘s world. Ambrose serves to initiate Sabrina to more dangerous magic and mores.
But the plot Ambrose develops is not credible enough; it could be much more detailed. And it feels the same with the three Weird Sisters: Prudence (Tati Gabrielle), Agatha (Adeline Rudolph), and Dorcas (Abigail Cowen). They vary in the same way as Ambrose, but their changes are always ambiguous and lack depth.
Regardless, this TV show is worth the detour, at least for fantasy and horror fans. It blurs the line between black and white magic and challenges our certainties of good and evil. It is resolutely part of modernity with characters equal in rights, gender, weaknesses, and power: a novelty which does teenage and fantastic worlds some good.
In order to facilitate a season’s viewing, I would say that the strongest episodes are the first, second, sixth, seventh, and final.
The first season of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is currently available to stream on Netflix. Check out its trailer below: