Netflix Review: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina S1

   THE CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA

Starring: Kiernan Shipka, Ross Lynch, Lucy Davis, Miranda Otto, Michelle Gomez, Chance Perdomo, Richard Coyle
Writer: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Director: Lee Toland Krieger

“When will the world learn? Women should be in charge of everything.”

There’s a moment in the first episode of THE CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA (which I am heretofore shortening to just SABRINA) where our title character (Kiernan Shipka) enters her house and, with a gesture, turns on a radio and begins dancing around gleefully. It immediately reminded me of Winona Ryder rocking out to Harry Belafonte during the final scene in BEETLEJUICE, just without the floating or ethereal football players. In the very next scene, Sabrina awakes to see a bat crash through her window. She then calmly, yet squeamishly smashes with a book. The juxtaposition of these two moments pretty much sums up the tone of the first season. Make no mistake. This is a DARK show. Still, there’s a sense of optimism and humor throughout that keeps things from getting too bleak.

Sabrina herself can be seen as two sides of the same coin, and that’s kind of the point. She’s a kind, thoughtful, romantic type who loves her boyfriend, loves her friends and genuinely wants to do good things. But on the flip-side, she also worships Satan and takes pleasure in casting spells on others. She draws the line at killing, but mild torture by way of spiders is okay in her book. She’s a real sweetheart. She also happens to be at a crossroads – being the daughter of a warlock and a mortal woman. She must decide whether to embrace her destiny and become a full witch or remain a half-breed. The former will grant her powers beyond her imagination, but at a cost: she must leave her home, her school, and her friends behind.

So, the question is: will Sabrina go through with her Dark Baptism, sign her name in the Book of the Beast and enroll in what basically sounds like Dark Hogwarts? Or will she remain simply Sabrina Spellman, a half-witch and mild-mannered student of Baxter High? Naturally, neither answer is simple, and both have severe consequences.

SABRINA is totally accessible to new viewers, but there are plenty of references for fans of both the previous tv series and the various comic books. The show is set in Greendale, a town not far from Riverdale (which is mentioned by name, bt-dubs). Sabrina still lives with her aunts Hilda and Zelda (Lucy Davis and Miranda Otto, respectively). She has a best friend named Roz, which is a nod to her original comic book rival, and then, of course, there’s Salem. On the eve of her 16th birthday, Sabrina is required to choose a familiar. Rather than pick one out of a registry (yes, that’s a thing in the magical world), she chooses an alternate path, which ultimately leads her to Salem (the cat, not the town). While he sadly doesn’t talk in this iteration, he is no less important and provides his new human with plenty of support.

Duality is a recurring theme throughout this inaugural season.  Besides exploring both Sabrina’s external and internal conflicts, there’s the matter of the show’s “big bad,” Miss Wardell, aka Madam Satan (Michelle Gomez). When we first meet her character, she is a kind, lonely teacher before a series of events leads her to take on a much more villainous role in her student’s life. We see multiple sides to many of the characters in this series, but her transformation may be the most dramatic. There is also Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle), the head of the local convent. His silver tongue works to convince Sabrina to go through with her Baptism while hiding his true intentions. It’s hard to imagine a devout Satanist to be dishonest, but there it is.

The strongest themes, however, are that of family and feminism. Sabrina wants to make her family proud, but she has a “friend” family she can’t bear to leave behind. The dynamic with her aunts Hilda and her cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) makes for some of the softer moments but also some of the strongest. Likewise, her other friendships, while not quite as compelling, lead to some intense moments and some pretty great plot developments, including the formation of WICCA. This moniker stands for Women’s Intersectional Cultural and Creative Association. It’s established as a movement for girls to stand up for and protect other girls.  While the feminist undertones may seem a bit heavy-handed at first, it’s a theme that is handled very well, especially given our current climate.

At this point you may be thinking, ‘that’s all well and fine but is the show any good?’ I’m happy to say that it is. The production value is very high quality – and not just Netflix quality, every episode looks and feels like a movie, with at least a moderately decent budget. There are many practical creature effects that might come off silly if used elsewhere, but here they’re effectively creepy. The writing is also top-notch – it’s clever but doesn’t try to be clever. The pacing feels natural, as does the humor. As to be expected, the more magically-inclined characters get the best lines, but everyone in the cast is handled smartly and respectfully.  And speaking of the cast…

Otto and Davis, being the two “names” in the cast, are just perfect as Sabrina’s aunts. Otto is a powerhouse that dominates just about every scene she’s in and has some truly killer lines. She also has a great dynamic with Davis, who is truly a being of magic.  She’s basically playing Etta Candy again but with an edge and brings some much-needed levity to even the more intense scenes. It is a little odd that both actresses are playing sisters, yet only Davis retains her English accent. Rounding out the family is Chance Perdomo as Sabrina’s cousin Ambrose, an older warlock presently on house-arrest. He seems to be having a great deal of fun in the role and has a tremendous presence as well.  He looks and sounds like a young Chiwetel Ejiofor, which is in no way a bad thing.

Gomez may be familiar to fans of DOCTOR WHO, and she is every bit as fantastic here. She chews the scenery with eerie delight. Her eyes go from kind to manic with very little effort. She portrays Madam Satan as a feminist icon, albeit a manipulative one, with a dark agenda all her own. As Sabrina’s boyfriend Harvey, Ross Lynch brings just the right amount of “aw shucks” charm to the role. He is certainly likable on his own, but there’s simply not much there to really invest in his character outside of his relationship with Sabrina.

Lastly, as the title character, Shipka is a revelation. Not only does she look the part (I mean, she seriously looks like a Robert Hack drawing come to life) but she delivers a truly star-making performance. Shipka brings a great amount of emotion to the role and is convincing as a character torn between worlds. I have to admit she does come off a bit bland during the family scenes. That speaks more to the strength of the actors around her.  Still, as her character grows throughout the season, so does her performance. She remains likable, even when she makes some truly devastating choices.

The Verdict: Binge it!

The series is simply fantastic. At only ten hour-long episodes, it’s very much worth binging, especially since we already know Season 2 is on the horizon. While it’s not overly violent, the overall atmosphere, creepy imagery, and adult content definitely warrants some parental discretion. Otherwise, this is perfect viewing for the Halloween weekend.

Cameron Kieffer wears many hats. He is a freelance writer and artist, creator of the webcomic "Geek Theory" and is co-host of the Nerd Dump podcast. He lives in Topeka with his wife and increasingly growing comic book collection.

Cameron Kieffer

Cameron Kieffer wears many hats. He is a freelance writer and artist, creator of the webcomic "Geek Theory" and is co-host of the Nerd Dump podcast. He lives in Topeka with his wife and increasingly growing comic book collection.

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