Review by C.J. Bunce
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is the rare show that tries to be many things and actually succeeds at them all. If you are looking for the ideal way to spend this Halloween, absent a Buffy the Vampire Slayer marathon, you’re not going to find a better TV pursuit than this new Netflix series. It features a captivating lead in its teenage witch Sabrina, played perfectly by Kiernan Shipka, who shows every frustrating feeling, emotion, and indecision any teenager must go through, reflected in a mythology-rich world with enormous stakes. Sabrina is a kid–a smart kid, but still a kid–so she makes the kind of mistakes teenagers make. Raised in the occult world by a family of witch aunts and a warlock cousin, Sabrina is a half-breed (her mother was human, her father a high priest in the dark arts), but viewers will see she shares some commonality with Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter books–she’s loyal, she’s book smart, she’s street savvy, and conscientious, dabbling in the magical world. She also is trusting and able to be manipulated by the adults around her. She may not be the fully realized, badass, confident heroine everyone wants to see–just yet–but by the end of Season 1 she’s well on her way.
The series protagonist is actually not Sabrina, but a demon who takes over the body of Michelle Gomez‘s Ms. Wardwell, a teacher at Sabrina’s mortal-realm high school, an ever-present mentor steering her out of dilemmas when Sabrina’s aunts fail to give Sabrina the help she wants. Gomez, who played Doctor Who’s #1 nemesis The Master, is even more engaging here, fully inhabiting a character whose motivations are hidden by a fog–a blurred reality paralleled by a clever fuzzy tweak in cinematography throughout each episode. Sabrina’s aunts, played by Miranda Otto, The Lord of the Rings #1 heroine who saved Middle-earth (“I am no man!”) and Lucy Davis, the #2 female lead in the WWI era of the movie Wonder Woman, unite to create a classic duet in the spirit of Arsenic and Old Lace. Otto’s Zelda is strict and a devout believer in her dark religion, Hilda a sweet and doting aunt who gets excommunicated for her support of Sabrina. All three actresses bring their genre star power to the series, providing a jolt of heroine gravatas to support the title character.
Sabrina is approaching her 16th birthday, when she must choose between the world of mortals and the world–and protections–of the witching world. She must decide whether she will relinquish her decision-making from then on to the devil himself or take her chances as a mortal. She is surrounded by those she thinks she can trust and others whose motivations are hidden in a dark world of several levels of good and evil. Making sense of the darkness and evil and placing a pantheon of 56-old comic book characters he rejuvenated in the pages of Archie Horror comics four years ago onto the screen for a new audience is Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, chief creative officer of Archie Comics, and executive producer and writer for the comics and CW’s Riverdale and Netflix’s Sabrina. Quite shrewdly, Sacasa doesn’t comment on the dark religion of the series or any political stance his characters may reflect, instead letter the viewer bring their own value set to the show and making their own analysis. Who do you want to cheer for, the equivalent of Darth Vader or Princess Leia in science fiction, or Sauron or Eowyn in fantasy? Sacasa pulls from age-old classic stories, like Cain and Abel from the Bible, W.W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw, John Carpenter’s films including The Fog, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Robert Eggers’ The Witch, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and a classic horror film mirrored in the comics that might be a spoiler for Season 2–so we’ll hold that title back for now.
In the series first season (Season 2 is already filming in Vancouver) viewers have plenty other characters to enjoy, love, or hate. Ross Lynch plays Harvey Kinkle, a do-gooder with the look of Evan Peters or a young Mark Hamill, Harvey can’t seem to measure-up to his father or brother, but will do anything for Sabrina. Maneuvering for Harvey’s position with Sabrina is dark arts student Nicholas Scratch (Gavin Leatherwood). Chance Perdomo is Sabrina’s cousin Ambrose, pulled from the comics like all the above characters, he’s a part-time confidante for Sabrina. At school, Sabrina’s friends are Roz (Jaz Sinclair), a girl losing her sight but gaining telekinetic visionary powers, and Susie (Lachlan Watson) a transgendered girl who finds new ways to address the bullies of her school. At the dark arts school Sabrina must face off against the Weird Sisters, “mean girl” witches led by Prudence (Tati Gabrielle), on-again, off-again frenemy of Sabrina. The flamboyant Richard Coyle plays Father Blackwood, Satan’s representative in the corporeal realm, and Bronson Pinchot is a Buffy the Vampire Slayer inspired evil principal of the mortals school–both provide the dose of loathsome, historic male domination that provide great foils for the women characters in the show. In the theme of “we all go a little mad sometimes” no character’s actions are perfect, but a few of them are definitely evil.
The series takes place in that anachronistic time period you’ll find any fantasy or fairy tale, mixing the best of today (tech like cell phones and texting) with rotary dial telephones and music from the 1960s setting of the comic books. Oscar-winning costume designer Angus Strathie provides a Hitchcockian flare to the show, including Grace Kelly inspired designs, and 1960s fabrics and colors for Sabrina. A decade-by-decade wardrobe for the century-old aunts are both subtle and inspired choices throughout the season.
Sure, many of the show’s surprises won’t be surprises at all for regular readers of Sacasa’s Archie Horror comic book series (also titled Chilling Adventures of Sabrina). The final episodes’ reveals are pretty much the first chapter of Issue #1 of the comic. Yet readers of the series who know the full story already will find the series nothing short of fantastic, changing some story elements but adhering closely to the spirit of the book. Robert Hack‘s incredible title sequence pulls images directly from his delicious, dark and vivid covers.
Where does the series stand versus its progenitors? It’s not quite Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but only because it’s hard to match Joss Whedon’s teen banter and humor, and Sabrina hasn’t yet arrived to fully utilize her dark powers. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina does give iZombie‘s first seasons a run for their money, as well as the five seasons of Grimm. Closest in tone to Grimm, it’s a welcome addition to the TV horror genre on a much higher level than slasher horror shows, like the admittedly fun but thinly plotted Ash vs. Evil Dead. Anyone who has watched any of these series will be familiar with Sabrina’s supernatural world and the rules that apply.
Creepy? Yep. Dark? Definitely. Chilling? Very much so. And one of the best-ever comic book adaptations.
The only fault of the first season? Not enough interaction with the witches’ familiars, including Sabrina’s well-known black cat Salem. Sacasa has mentioned in interviews Salem may get his own backstory episode next season. You can also find out his story and get insight on all the characters in Sacasa’s trade paperback compilation from the comic series, available here at Amazon.
Dark, with some gore, mutilations and violence, mature themes, suicide and murders in a variety of forms, rituals and Satanic references that won’t be for every audience, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is also brilliant, smartly written with strong empowerment themes for women, girls, and anyone who feels “different,” full of layered characters and real-world relationships couched in a fantasy horror setting, with top actors and a stylish production by Lisa Soper worthy of an Emmy or several. Released on October 26 it’s perfect for a Halloween binge marathon today–catch Season 1’s ten episodes anytime only on Netflix.