Review by C.J. Bunce
What’s it take to outperform a surprisingly successful supernatural series like Chilling Adventures of Sabrina′s first season? A core of fine writing in each episode of its second season and a returning cast of actors willing to immerse themselves unwaveringly into a strange world of the occult and the macabre, of witches and warlocks drawn from an expansive comic book universe. That’s the sophomore season of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which arrived on Netflix earlier this month, adapting the comic book series from the Archie Horror imprint. Mainstream critics weren’t kind to the series in the first weekend of its release, and that may because the series is one best taken episode by episode–each chapter is its own mini-movie, weighty and twisty, dark and heavy–too heavy for one sitting–yet it’s still fun. But it’s not recommended for binge watching. Spread this one out over a few weeks and you may agree this is a fantastic series, steeped in mythology and lore, while also outlandish enough to not take too seriously. And yes, it’s even better than its first season.
Two incredible actresses anchored Chilling Adventures of Sabrina again in the leading roles and two others provided gravitas in supporting roles. Twenty-year-old actress Kiernan Shipka returned as a bolder and smarter 16-year-old Sabrina, facing off against her favorite teacher who is also the manipulative Lilith, played by Michelle Gomez, right arm of the Prince of Darkness. It’s fair to say Gomez is fully the co-lead of the series–she is today’s master performer of villainy, following up on her performance as the villain we loved to hate, Misty the Timelord, in three seasons of Doctor Who. If actors really love portraying villains more than any other type, then she is at the top of the league. So it takes one heck of a performer to be able to stand firm against a performer like Gomez. Shipka does it, never flinching no matter what the writers ask of her. Kill (and play) her doppelganger? Overpower everyone to save her cousin from the guillotine? Discover and take down a trio of new demons in town? Take on the devil himself? Sabrina can do it all, but it’s only because Shipka never falters in every layered and surprising new script.
The stories this season pulled from past supernatural shows, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Harry Potter to Grimm, and incorporated all kinds of horror tropes (Hellraiser puzzle box?), peppered with clever pop culture references (Stepford Wives Zelda?). It succeeded where its sister series, CW’s Riverdale, was unable this year, getting better with each episode. Writers Donna Thorland, MJ Kaufman, Christina Ham, Oanh Ly, Ross Maxwell, Matthew Barry, Christianna Hedtke, Lindsay Bring, Joshua Conkel, and showrunner and comic book writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa stretched the boundaries of fantasy into a series like nothing anyone has ever seen on TV.
And those supporting players? That begins with Sabrina’s fabulous aunts: The Lord of the Rings star Miranda Otto is the driven and opportunistic Zelda, vying for top witch honors, and Wonder Woman and Shaun of the Dead’s Lucy Davis is Hilda, the friendly and fun witch everyone takes for granted–but shouldn’t. They both take the wicked stepsisters trope and stand it on end, providing mentoring for the teen protagonist who will do anything to avoid being the bringer of the Apocalypse.
A dozen other actors in the ensemble return from season one to fill in the blanks, but they take a backseat even more than in last season, except for Gavin Leatherwood as Sabrina’s boyfriend Nick and Tati Gabrielle as Prudence. Plenty of guest roles added even more to the fun. Angel and Grimm’s Alexis Denisof is perfect as Lilith’s kind new friend Adam Marsters, The X-Files’s own smoking man, William B. Davis played Methuselah as vile as Bela Lugosi might have played it, Battlestar Galactica, Smallville, and Continuum’s Alessandro Juliani played Hilda’s new beau Dr. Cee, and The Originals and The Order’s Jedidiah Goodacre played the new mysterious bartender Dorian Gray. But best of all were appearances by genredom’s two most respected actors, the first woman of sci-fi and horror Veronica Cartwright as a mysterious fortune teller, and the versatile Ray Wise as the leader Enoch.
Netflix has two more seasons in the works for the series (Netflix is calling seasons “parts” for this show, but they’re just 10-episode seasons as with other streaming series). One thing keeps the series from top marks, a misfire from season one we hoped to be remedied with season two. Everyone knows Salem the cat is a big part of the comic books, old and new. It’s almost criminal that the series has left Salem out of all but the barest side glances for two seasons now. Viewers have walked away from adaptations for less, so the series needs to make up for this omission in a major way next season. Captain Marvel proved what the smart use of a supernatural cat can do for ratings, so why not take advantage of an obvious great component of the comics? Shipka is said to be allergic to cats, but that shouldn’t stop modern effects creators.
No matter your background, some part of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is likely to make you squirm. Its unorthodox storytelling tackles all sorts of topics: religious, political, philosophical, artistic, literary, historical, family, sex, gender, and, of course, it’s about a teenager so there’s plenty of teen angst, romance, and relationship issues, too. If you don’t like some component of the show? Wait a few minutes and it will move on to something else. Wild, fantastical, and outlandish, but also thoughtful and thought-provoking, fans of the comic book series and of horror and fantasy genres won’t want to miss this season of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. It’s great TV, streaming now on Netflix.