Reboots have been the name of the game for some time now, but after the success of the CW’s Riverdale, it wasn’t surprising that the next stop would be another Archie’s property, Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Really, the only surprise was that it ended up on Netflix instead of the CW, whose predecessor, the WB, aired the later seasons of the popular sitcom. The choice, however, did enable the show to go to places that simply wouldn’t be possible on network television, including casting the Spellman family as Satan worshippers.
In the original comics, Sabrina was a well-meaning witch under constant pressure to be “bad” by Aunties, Hilda and Zelda. It cast Sabrina as the pretty protagonist exhibiting teen rebellion in the form of trying to help rather than hurt at a controversial time in American politics. (I’m talking about the 1960s.) Over thirty years later, Sabrina the Teenage Witch became a live-action television show starring Melissa Joan Hart, then of Clarissa Explains It All fame. (Note: it was first a TV film aired on Showtime with only Melissa Joan Hart and Michelle Beaudoin making it to primetime.)
As I’ve discussed in previous posts, the 90s were all about that girl power and that was something frequently demonstrated by our favorite witch. It also looked at the trials of growing up, particularly growing up feeling different, something all teenagers feel regardless of their standing in school hierarchy. In this version, though, Sabrina had her aunties and a wise-talking cat to help guide her. It was about learning how to be a witch as well as an adult woman, culminating in running away from her own wedding with high school sweetheart, Harvey Kinkle.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is based on a comic of the same name, which takes a darker approach to the characters, in line with other Archie’s properties. Here, the show again tackles the theme of growing up but further emphasizes growing up torn between two worlds. In both live-action series, Sabrina is only half witch, with a Warlock father and Mortal mother, and must learn to navigate both the magical and mundane worlds. In Chilling, however, Sabrina has always been aware of her parentage and heritage and is already practicing magic before her sixteenth birthday. Also, while Sabrina comes to live with her aunts just before her sixteenth birthday in the 90s sitcom, here Sabrina’s parents died when she was a baby and she has been raised by her aunties in conjunction with Cousin Ambrose.
Another key difference lies in the craft itself and the nature of talking cats. In the sitcom, magic is all very light and fluffy, accompanied by a ping! and some sparks or a puff of smoke. Sabrina just recites a rhyme and points and voila! *Magic* In Chilling, spells can be English chants but are more often recited in Latin and magic has lost the campy sparkles. Sabrina doesn’t even need to point anymore– perhaps a concept inspired by some of the witches to come after sitcom Sabrina, the Halliwell sisters and Willow Rosenberg. Additionally, the witches aren’t just born with their powers… well, they are, but they are also considered a gift from the Dark Lord, Satan, and upon a witch’s sixteenth birthday she is expected to sign the Book of the Beast and pledge herself to the Dark Lord or begin losing her powers (and continuing to age at the same rate).
In Chilling, witches are also in possession of familiars to help and protect them. They are actually goblins that take animal form and while their witches can understand them, it’s rare that the audience knows what the familiar is communicating through “caw”s and “meow”s. In both the sitcom and the TV film it derived from, Salem the cat didn’t start out as a cat but as a Warlock who was turned into a cat as punishment. In the TV film, it is the consequence of using magic to make someone fall in love with him (again continuing the idea of magic being for benevolence that contradicts the earlier comic), while in the sitcom it is punishment for the outlandish crime of TRYING TO TAKE OVER THE WORLD. (I hope the Millenials heard that in Brain’s voice, otherwise what is even the point?) In fact, the only reason Salem lives with the Spellman family is because Hilda was one of his underlings. The Salem of Chilling has yet to be given a voice (I suspect we won’t be getting Nick Bakay) but has proven an able protector of his charge, whom he came to of his own free will.
In many ways, Chilling is an appropriate successor to the sitcom, reflecting both the time and the change in TV and its priorities. While I found the writing to drag at times, rather than be suspenseful, the show does some really interesting things with the camera and the casting is excellent. For the bulk of the show, the camera’s focus remains blurry at the edges, giving the show a dream-like and surreal effect. It implies that perhaps Chilling is just a bad dream you are having, that such terrible things couldn’t exist in any world. The effects and lighting are consistent with the gothic feel, while the costuming makes the show timeless. While Sabrina is typically looking like she stepped out of the 1960s comic, members of the Church of Night take on a more Victorian appearance. Her best friends, Roz and Susie bring minorities and the trans community into play, while the appearances of technology are few and far between.
Now, the casting. Oh, the casting… it’s something I’ve been dying to talk about. Let’s start with Sabrina herself, Kiernan Shipka (Mad Men, Feud: Bette and Joan, The Legend of Korra). I was constantly amazed by how much Shipka resembled Melissa Joan Hart in the role (and James Van Der Beek… check out Don’t Trust the B– in Apartment 23…). While she obviously plays down (or not at all) the camp that Hart brought to the role, she is just as earnest, well-meaning, and determined to fight for what’s right and those she loves. The casting is truly spot on, with Shipka bringing that same altruism to the prospect of Satan worship, while still subtly underscoring how odd it is that men are the ones in power in what one would expect to be a matriarchal society. (This was something the sitcom transitioned away from as time went by, with more and more women in roles of power).
One of the few women in power is played by Michelle Gomez, whom I know from her role as the Master (“Missy”) in Doctor Who. I knew going in that I should expect Gomez to once again play a villain, and from the first episode it is clear that, like Missy, “Ms. Wardwell” has her own agenda. Gomez once again plays up the creepy, though is more deadly serious than completely mad like she was as the Master (“Bananas!”). Still, aside from the occasional slip into her native Scottish accent, Gomez is perfection as the woman working in the shadows to steer Sabrina down a specific malevolent path.
Ambrose, although a character that did not exist in the sitcom, is one from the comics and, like in the comics, fills the role that Salem played in the sitcom. Like Shipka, Chance Perdomo seems to channel his predecessor, although it’s clear he is not a cat, nor as frivolously ‘evil’. He helps Sabrina get into and out of trouble and serves as a confidante, much like sitcom Salem did.
In Chilling, Aunts Hilda and Zelda are played by Lucy Davis and Miranda Otto respectively and here is a clear deviation from the sitcom portrayal. Hilda is kindly, but knowledgeable, rather than goofy, but over time becomes something of a black sheep. Zelda is just as knowledgeable and serious about magic, but that is where her interest ends. They are again the fun one and the strict one, but are again taken more seriously, and the disconnect from their sitcom counterparts is palpable. While they were both excellent, the difference in their accents was one I found distracting (though this was true of all the Spellman family), but I can appreciate how the cast was more colorful than simply a collection of thin, white, blonde ladies.
Harvey Kinkle is another change. While still kind and unknowingly affected by magic time and time again, this Harvey’s passion is art, while his older brother was a football star. Ross Lynch perfectly gets that combination of cluelessness and confusion that Nate Richert nailed in the sitcom (though, while I’ve never seen anything else Lynch has done, the brown hair was kinda jarring). This Harvey best demonstrates how the show manages to channel its predecessor (a nod to many of the now grown-up fans watching Chilling) while still bringing something new to the table.
Overall, I have really mixed feelings about this first batch of episodes (though it does have me wanting to check out Riverdale). The prophesized greater destiny trope is one that I feel has been played out, but I’m curious to see what Chilling does with it, especially after seeing that last episode. The characters remain compelling (some more than others) and we are given the “witchy” world in a way that we haven’t seen before. In the sitcom, The Other Realm was another separate plane of existence for the sitcom’s magical cast, but here the supernatural exists alongside and has influenced and been influenced by mortal humans. With the show influenced by other witches, such as in Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as the vampiric True Blood, I have to wonder what the comics do and how they differ. I know, this is incredibly wishy-washy, but having just finished the ten episodes last night, I’m still not quite sure where I stand.
That being said, my nostalgia and appreciation for Chilling‘s production values means that I will almost certainly watch the next batch of episodes and keep an eye on when Netflix plans to release them…