It’s Halloween and I thought in the spirit of the season I would binge the entire season of the new Netflix series The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Why would I do that all in one day, you ask? So I can tell you all about it, of course. Screentime this chilling comes but once a year and you’ll want to spend it with something suuuuitably spooooky, I’m sure.
Does Sabrina fit that bill? Well, from the very start, Sabrina pays suitable homage to her roots in Archie comics, with an animation by way of Bernie Wrightson with a detour to Catch Me if You can (full disclosure, I haven’t read any of the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina comics, so draw no parallels to the source material herein). The musical score does a good job of matching this multifaceted identity by veering between a poppy Josie and the Pussycats vibe and the relentless orchestrals of a Hitchcock movie.
The first five minutes of the pilot portray a Sabrina that is a grounded, fun loving girl next door, even though that building next door happens to be a mortuary (complete with cool sign I already want on a T shirt). The show quickly moves beyond this initial dynamic to establish its bona fides as belonging solidly in the horror canon, with all the expedient expository dialogue that entails via a chilling performance from Michelle Gomez as Ms. Wordwell. She goes on to deliver a solidly wicked performance for the rest of the season. Unlike its counterpart Riverdale- which I think of as Dallas for children- the tonal changes actually make sense for Sabrina, even if it shares Riverdale’s sense of excessive drama.
In this iteration, the Spellman family consists of Sabrina, her Aunt Zelda who is unapologetically witchy, her more subtle and unconditionally loving Aunt Hilda and her literally devilish (even more so than the rest of the family) cousin Ambrose. The family as a whole promises that one cannot lead a mortal and infernal life, and Sabrina tries her best to accomplish just that, with we the audience along for the ride. At first, magic is shown here as serious business and has none of the light Hogwartiness to which we’ve become accustomed. Sabrina’s Academy of Unseen Arts has more of the cultish qualities of 70s schlock by Roman Polanski and leans in further to the Satanism than I ever would have suspected. But the series struggles to find its footing as to how lasting the implications of any decision made may last and the spookiness of the witches coven sometimes overplays its hand and takes it back down to gimmicky or cute.
The show ambitiously takes on the problems that come both with supernatural and secular society while exploring contemporary subjects like gender dynamics, the pressures of tradition, classism and the burdensome weight of history in a prescient, not preachy but ultimately conflicted way. It sometimes feels like the creators are trying to subvert certain storytelling clichés and stereotypes and instead leans in heavily and props up many of those same clichés, but I do give them props for trying. The lack of a coherent point of view might be indicative of the type of tough themes it tries hard to address. If there’s a central question posed by this first season of the show, it’s in an internal struggle to determine if witchcraft is ultimately empowering or restrictive to Sabrina living the life she wants to live.
The struggle for identity continues between moments where Sabrina deftly pays out its love of horror in subtle ways (my particular favorite is in an episode that explores the outer limits of morality while Sabrina stumbles into a room where Ambrose is watching the famous “One of Us” scene from Freaks) to overly telegraphed “homages” that border on plagiarism a la the shinning, because we don’t want to get sued. Besides Stephen King, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series is obviously a huge influence here and to the show’s credit, it does not try to hide that at all.
Like most series of this longform storytelling nature, the show does tread water a bit in the middle episodes to pad out the run time to a full 10 episodes. Disenchantment from Matt Groening fell prey to this same trap earlier this year and I sometimes think that the runtime freedom Netflix affords is as much curse as blessing to a series as there’s no need or incentive to keep things tight, but most of the filler here is atmospheric enough that it doesn’t detract, even if it doesn’t improve. One character I may give more than is his due in these times is Bronson Pinchot as embattled high school principal Mr. Hawthorne. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Mr. Pinchot and even though I may have admittedly been looking on him with rose colored glasses, do I still think he delivers a solid performance? Well, of course he does, don’t be ridiculous. But in the end, I do think that Sabrina is worth looking at one time at least. If you really like Hocus Pocus, then you should probably watch Hocus Pocus this Halloween. But if you really like Supernatural, Charmed or even the Witches of Eastwick, this might be just the holiday fare for you.