Being a 90’s baby, pressing play on the first episode of the new Netflix series The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina came with a hefty dose of nostalgia. If you’re of a similar age, I feel it’s hard not to be transported back to your youth by this updated take on the Archie Comics series. Sabrina the Teenage Witch ran from 1996 to 2000, and whether you were a big fan or not, you knew about her because she was everywhere, and Melissa Joan Hart forever became synonymous with the character. If you are a diehard fan of the original and were expecting more of the same here, I’m sorry to tell you, they are like chalk and cheese in terms of tone. But that’s not a bad thing by any stretch! While 90’s Sabrina took the light-hearted and quirky route, this reboot (which sees Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka taking over as the titular Sabrina) is a much darker affair from the outset.
I’ve only seen the first 7 episodes of the series for now, so I don’t know how it ends or sets up the already confirmed second season yet. But I was impressed by it. We’re introduced to Sabrina, a half witch/ half mortal, 15-year-old girl who is fast approaching her 16th birthday. It’s supposed to be a happy time in a young girls life, but Sabrina feels the weight of a decision she must make when that day comes: the teen is expected to renounce her mortal life and undergo a “Dark Baptism” beneath a blood moon observed by the members of her coven, all so she can sign her soul over to the Dark Lord (aka, Satan) and enter his service for life. This plot point is laid out early, leaving the viewer under no illusion; 90’s Sabrina this ain’t!! Had that series dared to feature such dark themes back then, it would have undoubtedly been pulled from air, if it were even to make it there in the first place.
Perhaps the most notable thing about this new series (aside from it’s darker tone and embrace of the occult), is the way in which it approaches big social issues prominent in the world right now. While the main narrative of the series is undoubtedly and unsurprisingly Sabrina’s story, side plots tackle female equality, abuse, bodily autonomy and racism in clever ways, that make it part of the overall series, rather than have it feel like misplaced agenda pushing. One early side story, a clear allusion to the #metoo movement, sees Sabrina and her friends strive to dismantle the “puritanical masculinity” that runs rampant and unchecked in their school, Baxter High. Best friend Susie is subject to taunts and even violence by the school’s dimwitted, entitled jocks, yet nothing is done, a striking reference to the protecting of abusers which is an ongoing talking point everywhere at the moment. In a nod to female solidarity and the importance of supporting one another, Sabrina and some other magical friends decide to stand up for themselves when no-one else will, taking matters into their own hands and putting their powers to good use.
Aspects of the story are used to tackle the issues surrounding female bodily autonomy also. Pressured into signing her body and soul over to the Dark Lord is something Sabrina can’t fully get on board with. Initially hopeful of striking a bargain that will allow her to keep her freedom as well as assume her full dark powers, that idea seems impossible when another character remarks that this will never happen, because the Dark Lord is “a man, isn’t he?” It’s a sad reference to the oppression experience by woman down through history, even amongst powerful witches, but Sabrina’s response is indicative of today’s young woman, refusing to just sit back and do what is expected of them: “Why does the Dark Lord get to decide what I do with my body?” It shows that as much as this show will be about serving the stories of its Archie Comics source material, so too will it be about inspiring a generation of viewers – young women especially – to know that they don’t have to accept whats coming their way if they don’t want to.
The issue of racism is cleverly touched upon also. Being half mortal/half witch (her father was a warlock, her mother a mortal) means Sabrina is seen as an abomination by some in the magic community, someone to be shunned and shamed. It’s a clear reference to discrimination, prejudice and racism, and while there is nothing thematically new in that given those are topics often explored in TV, the way it is approached is interesting. One of Sabrina’s harshest critics is Prudence, member of the deliciously bitchy Weird Sisters, and a young woman of color. It would have been an easy route to take casting a white actress to embody a character with racial prejudice undertones to her, given the history of this world. But approaching it from this way really highlights a point that is often forgotten: racism and prejudice exist in many forms, and can come from any direction.
Aside from it’s embrace of the dark occult theme, and tackling of issues in a clever way, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has other stuff going for it too. The cast is amazing, including the likes of veterans Miranda Otto (perfect here as the strict, takes-no-shit Aunt Zelda) and Lucy Davis (the perfect foil to Otto’s Zelda; her Aunt Hilda is quirky, warm and motherly). Shipka looks just like the Sabrina from the comics, so much so that you’d be forgiven for thinking she walked directly from the pages. She’s great as the lead, likeable and manages to make the role her own (something that was always going to be hard given how people took Melissa Joan Hart as Sabrina in the 90’s series to their hearts. Admittedly, the dark tone and subject matter could have helped with this, as it really distinguishes the too young witches, but still). Ross Lynch is lovable as the oblivious Harvey Kinkle, who gets more of a fleshed out back story here than he ever did in the 90’s series. Tati Gabrielle adds some gravitas to the Mean Girls-esque Weird Sisters, as their leader Prudence, while Chance Perdomo is an instant scene-stealer as Ambrose, Sabrina’s charismatic, pansexual, British cousin, sentenced to permanent house arrest in the Spellman household (he never appeared throughout the 90’s run of the show, but does appear in the source comics, and gets his debut run on screen here). Sabrina’s sidekick Salem makes an appearance…however he DOESN’T talk like he did back in the 90’s. Although, that actually kind of fits here!
The settings and costumes are rich and vivid too….not surprising given the series’ connection to Riverdale, the massive hit CW show which adapts the characters of the Archie comics to the screen with a dark and often sexy twist (I seriously don’t think I’ve ever seen a more attractive cast ever on TV!!). Sabrina has crossed over with Archie in the comics, and those who are fans of both will be hopeful for a TV crossover of some kind, especially if you keep your eyes peeled in episode 7, which throws up a very clear Riverdale reference. Plus, aside from the fact that Riverdale characters have spoken of Greendale (Sabrina’s hometown) being just across the river several times, I am convinced the show runners put a subtle reference into the premier of the second series last year in anticipation of Sabrina, hinting there could be more to Cheryl Blossom than was originally thought. Just watch that video! For now though it appears the two shows exist in their own universes (at least kind of), but a full crossover is definitely on the cards.
All in all, this new series is a strong, punchy start for a revamped franchise, with a grown-up tone, great casting, sharp social awareness and the potential for an expansion into a wider universe. I’m off to catch those last 3 episodes and see how it all wraps up. Have you binged the series yet? As, always, I’d love to hear your thoughts!