In today’s saturated market of comic books turned into television shows, some are amazing, some are bad and some are amazingly bad. Unfortunately, “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” falls somewhere in between the second and third category, proving that a high production value doesn’t always equate to a well-made show.
Based on the decades-old “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” comics, Netflix’s dark iteration is the fifth television adaption of the series, the most famous being Melissa Joan Hart’s “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” sitcom from the mid-90s through the early 2000s. The show revolves around 16-year-old Sabrina Spellman, a half-witch, half-mortal who must balance the secret magic in her life with the everyday trials and tribulations of being a teenage girl.
The Netflix version handles darker topics than Sabrina having to worry about accidentally turning the popular girl at school into a pineapple. Digging more into the occult history of witch lore — so much so that a satanic temple is suing the show for allegedly copying its statue — the show casts a much more gothic light on Sabrina’s heritage. These witches are dedicated servants to “The Dark Lord,” signing their name in “The Book of the Beasts” when they turn 16 as a pledge of eternal loyalty to Satan. But precocious Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) is hesitant to sign away her freedom, especially if that means saying goodbye to the mortal world and, more importantly, her boyfriend Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch). Of course, conflict ensues after Sabrina’s defiance.
The idea of teenage angst mixing with some supernatural satanic hijinks sounds like an interesting premise, yet the show’s numerous forgettable plots and confusing mythopoeia — told through obnoxiously blatant exposition — results in a very slow rendition of Sabrina’s coming-of-age story. The show relies on its considerable production budget to impress the audience, but lacks significant substance. The gothic campiness of the witch world is meant to be imposing, but the absurdity of it all makes it more laughable than awe-inspiring. A menacing demon named Batibat? A teenage orgy? A mean-girl clique self-titled “The Weird Sisters?”
Every television comic-book world has its tone — Netflix’s Marvel cinematic universe is edgy, The CW’s Arrowverse is expansive, “Riverdale” is campy. But “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” can’t seem to figure out what it wants to be, with storylines ranging from cannibalistic rituals to underground feminist book clubs. With the stakes so high in the demon world, Sabrina and her friends’ high school plights often feel irrelevant in turn, even when her friends are absorbed into the witch universe.
The one redeeming quality of the show is its empowering, mostly female cast. For the most part, they break away from stereotypical female tropes. Sabrina is an overly confident teenager who would rather bluster through the world with false bravado than be a damsel in distress. Her guides, Aunt Zelda (Miranda Otto) and Mrs. Wardwell (Michelle Gomez), are commanding and intimidating, yet they have their maternal moments. While at times the feminist undertones are a little heavy-handed, it is refreshing to see a show with many complex, albeit confusing, female characters.
If you’re looking for a supplement to your “Riverdale” fix or are just nostalgic for the old sitcom, “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” is not for you. With a confusing magical universe that is both too heavy-handed with its exposition and not explained enough, the show is only for those who are die-hard fans of the franchise or of the occult. And even then, it is best enjoyed with alcoholic substances.
Julie Lim covers television. Contact her at [email protected].