Anybody can compare Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina to The CW’s Riverdale. Both hail from executive producer Greg Berlanti and creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Both upend beloved comic book properties in adult-but-not-too-adult ways that leave them essentially unrecognizable, other than the pleasant frisson generated by a familiar character name or inside joke. Both walk a high conceptual tightrope, one that Riverdale plummeted off of in a second season that sucked the “pleasure” out of the guilty pleasure.
Why, then, did I watch the 10-episode introduction to Chilling Adventures of Sabrina thinking of an allegedly prestigious Netflix drama that has become my bete noire, particularly in its second season? Why did I find myself thinking of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina as Ozark only with witchcraft?
Both shows lean perhaps too heavily on an overly murky palette. Credit to Sabrina for at least utilizing colors other than black and gray and brown, with pilot director Lee Toland Krieger making greens and reds pop, often employing an interesting blurring of the sides of the frame to create an iris of focus in the middle. Both shows take advantage of Netflix’s refusal to suggest to showrunners that their stories might be better told with a little trimming. Seriously, how can a TV show with its origins from Sabrina the Teenage Witch justify episodes that often crest over an hour apiece? Both shows exist on the brink of an enticing world of darkness and yet concentrate on a descent into criminality rather than getting into the fun stuff. Incidentally, that’s what I liked best about the first season of Ozark that was abandoned in the second: the accounting, baby! It’s not what I enjoyed most about Sabrina, namely an initial five-episode stretch that could more appropriately be titled The Bureaucratic Complications of Sabrina the Young Adult Half-Satanist.
Beginning with a conspicuous lack of chills and an even more conspicuous lack of adventures, the series introduces us to the mining community of Greendale. Located somewhere near enough to Riverdale for one geographical mention but not near enough for Archie and the gang to make a cameo, Greendale has a dark history of witchcraft. That tradition is surreptitiously kept alive in the present by the Spellman sisters, Hilda (Lucy Davis) and Zelda (Miranda Otto), who run a mortuary and are raising their niece Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka). Sabrina is on the verge of her 16th birthday, which would mean embracing her witchy identity and enrolling at the Academy of Unseen Arts. The catch: Sabrina is only half a witch — like they serve with a small salad or soup at Panera — and she’d kinda rather spend her time going to her boring, poorly lit human high school and hanging out with her boring, poorly developed friends Roslind (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie (Lachlan Watson) and her astoundingly boring boyfriend Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch).
This preference concerns her aunts, but it downright outrages Faustus Blackwood (Richard Coyle), dean at the Academy and former student of Sabrina’s late father. Also taking a concerned approach are Sabrina’s possibly possessed teacher Miss Wardwell (Michelle Gomez) and the trio of high school witches known as the Weird Sisters — Tati Gabrielle’s Prudence, Abigail F. Cowen’s Dorcas and Adeline Rudolph’s Agatha — who don’t cotton to Sabrina being only halfway in their world.
One thing you have to know about Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, other than the lack of a “The” in the title, is that Aguirre-Sacasa and company aren’t approaching “witchcraft” as some frivolous and nebulous spiritual system or as an overt metaphor. It’s very literal and very serious. Like, don’t expect Salem, Sabrina’s talking cat, to be all sardonic and quippy. Familiars are demons in animal form and not to be taken lightly!
Sabrina comes from a long line of straight-up Satanists, who pray to their misunderstood Dark Lord, offer lengthy invocations in Latin and seem to have a ritual or sacrifice for every occasion. Over the course of the season, we learn how witches celebrate Thanksgiving, the particularities of their gestation and their stance on exorcisms and reincarnation. They also have exhaustive procedural rules regarding who is or isn’t a witch and how much free will they have, and the first three or four episodes of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina feature contractual analysis, a trial and endless negotiations all to get us to a point that’s inevitable because the source material is not called Sabrina the Ordinary Teenager Who Decided Not to Be a Witch and Therefore Wasn’t a Witch Anymore.
Bits and pieces of witch and Satanic lore and everyday life are entertaining, but long stretches of buildup are like the fleetingly scary homework that has to be completed to earn the fun. Structure and procedure are subpar ways to introduced characters played by Davis and Coyle, actors who thrive in freedom and are inevitably wasted in what begins as a supernatural courtroom drama. At least Coyle’s dialogue is consistently evil and the Coupling veteran delights in every ominous word. Davis looks and feels totally lost until the show removes her tether halfway through, and then she thankfully becomes the sort of scene-stealing treat fans of The Office and Wonder Woman expect. Otto’s doing a strange and unplaceable accent and either she mostly drops it or she also just gets comfortable when Zelda gets to become a complicated character and not just Witch Aunt #1.
The choice of this as an introductory strategy is just so perplexing and so unnecessary. Sabrina is a young woman torn between two worlds. Who thinks this is a complicated concept? She’s not quite human, not quite a witch, not quite a woman, not quite a girl. The more the show spells out her world, pun intended, the more I get confused by things like when Sabrina is or isn’t actually attending the Academy, what she’s being taught there and why so many incantations come instinctively to her.
Plus, every second we spend on the witching side of the story is time we lose with Sabrina’s friends, who feel like Muggle interlopers until very near the end of the season and by the time the story decides they’re important, it’s way too late. Watson’s character is at least conceptually interesting, if executionally lost. Roz and Harvey are just bland human counterpoints to the witch/warlock options we begin to wish Sabrina was hanging out with instead. The teen soap side of the show, the thing Riverdale has had the most success with, just isn’t where Sabrina is most invested. When it has finally locked in — the seventh episode, with the Thanksgiving rituals was my favorite — it becomes somewhere between American Horror Story Lite and an OK Buffy the Vampire Slayer spawn.
The appeal of Sabrina, increasing as the show goes along, comes mostly from Shipka. The Mad Men veteran is a perfectly cast complement to one of the show’s most endearing elements, namely its blurry approach to modernity. Although there are very rare references to contemporary social issues or a few recent movies, Sabrina takes Riverdale‘s pervasive retro pastiche aesthetic several steps further. Greendale’s mining industry is straight out of the unregulated pre-union past, its cars from the ’50s and ’60s, its most popular hangout a celebration of vintage horror films. There’s a fundamental conservatism to Greendale and human society — Harvey and Sabrina barely kiss — while the witching world is cool with orgies and cannibalism. Shipka plays Sabrina as a bridge between those extremes, too virtuous for witchery and too tempted by magical power to be completely human, but generally shocked by the morals in each of her environments. Every aspect of her performance is a hair exaggerated, carried over from period performances on Mad Men and Feud, making for a charmingly congruous incongruity.
After five episodes of foundation-laying that could, if I’m being generous, have been dispatched in two, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina finally kicks into gear. There’s a narrative momentum to the season’s end that has me looking forward to a much more fully realized, and already ordered, second season, but in a TV world in which “Trust me, it gets better” are the most damning words a critic can utter, how ridiculous is it to be urging this much patience with a show called Chilling Adventures of Sabrina?
Cast: Kiernan Shipka, Jaz Sinclair, Michelle Gomez, Chance Perdomo, Lucy Davis, Miranda Otto, Richard Coyle, Ross Lynch, Tati Gabrielle
Developed by: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)