Showrunner: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
It’s Halloween season, and Netflix are here to satiate our hunger for spooky fun. This year, the streaming giant takes us back to our millennial childhoods with a new version of the beloved Sabrina the Teenage Witch franchise: Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. While most of us have a soft spot for the original TV series lead by Melissa Joan Hart, Sabrina has actually been around since 1962, debuting in Archie’s Mad House #22. Since that time, she has gone through a few different incarnations; the one Netflix decided to run with was 2014’s comic of the same name published by Archie Horror. In this the age of reboots, it was refreshing to see Netflix take on a pre-established property and not just rehash the same format that has already been on our screens. Choosing this darker source material has given the show a breath of fresh air, helping ensure it doesn’t suffer an overabundance of comparisons with its more comedic counterpart.
Aesthetically, Chilling Adventures quite firmly sets itself apart with a much darker palette, with Greendale looking perpetually stuck in Halloween-mode. Similar to Riverdale, everything feels just a little sixties, although now it is amped up with not many hints of technology in sight. Even when our characters are out at the cinema, they’re watching Night of the Living Dead (1968). The set design is beautiful, and the entire Spellman Mortuary looks fantastic… if only we could get a good look at it. Here lies my only real problem with the show; to accompany the aesthetic, the director, or someone, has chosen to throw a blur effect on the camera. Now, this wouldn’t be an issue for me, if it wasn’t in almost every single scene. The blur is extremely inconsistent; sometimes it’s very light and doesn’t really effect the frame of a shot at all, and other times it takes up almost the entire background and all you can make out is the character in the centre of the shot. This can be distracting when you are almost straining your eyes to see what’s going on. The blur effect is most prominent in scenes containing magical activity, and while I can understand what they were going for, I think they went a bit overboard with it.
The witchcraft is not as simple as a flick of the finger, being based more in Satanic or Wiccan traditions. The series is at its best when delving into the culture of the coven and the dark lord—praising Satan has never looked as enticing! The series feels at its weakest when focusing on Sabrina’s mortal connections. Her best friends, Rosalind (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie (Lachlan Watson), feel like walking clichés with very little personality beyond wanting to ‘fight the patriarchy’—there just isn’t much depth there. Luckily, these plot threads don’t linger for too long before moving back to more interesting matters. The most important mortal connection Sabrina holds though, is of course with the loveable dope Harvey Kinkel, played by Ross Lynch. Lynch puts in an excellent job bringing to life the normal high school boy in love with his high school sweetheart. Harvey as a character has always been a bit shall we say… thick, but to my relief, Lynch manages to avoid painting him as a complete idiot. His and Sabrina’s relationship, while sometimes quite cutesy, is done well and pretty realistic to a teenage romance. I’d gladly spend the time watching their interactions as opposed to the other mortal friends.
Sabrina’s connection to the magical world is through her home life, with Aunties Hilda (Lucy Davis) and Zelda (Miranda Otto) both playing their parts well. Hilda fills the more caring and doting role while Zelda is more strict and authoritative. Being a darker adaptation, we aren’t graced with the hilarity of a talking cat puppet. Instead, Salem is a badass familiar that any spellcaster would envy. To fill that comic relief role, we are gifted one of my favourite characters, Ambrose Spellman (Chance Perdomo). Ambrose is Sabrina’s cousin who has been under house arrest for the past 75 years; adding humour and a genuine care for Sabrina, he is a welcome addition to the show. Finally, I have come to the lynchpin of the show—Sabrina Spellman herself (played by a fantastic Kiernan Shipka). If you read my previous Trailer Talk, you’d know how keen I was to see her take on the role and, thankfully, she hasn’t disappointed. Shipka plays Sabrina as a deliciously strong female lead; she’s headstrong with a dash of innocence, a pinch of creepiness and a whole lot of curiosity. Her motivations are clear and defined and don’t ever wander into melodramatic territory. While she cares about her mortal connections, they aren’t the sole reason for her decisions in the story.
All in all, I think Netflix has done a great job here taking on a pre-established property with a new spin that non-readers of the comic books haven’t seen before. No one wanted or needed a rehash of the previous series, so a complete tone shift was the right move. As to whether it’s worth watching, Chilling Tales of Sabrina may not hit the mark 100% of the time, but if you enjoy a bit of light horror mixed with a few laughs and cool moments, I’d wholeheartedly recommend giving it a watch. It’s an enjoyable ride with some very fun characters—just avoid summoning any demonic forces when you’re done.