For those of us that grew up on ABC’s sassy yet squeaky-clean portrayal of the Archie comics character in the 1990s, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is the version we want to see as genre-loving adults. It does away with the cutesy spells and magical mishaps, making it perfectly clear that these witches command an ancient power granted by a dark lord.
Showrunner/writer/executive producer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa – who also serves as the Chief Creative Officer for Archie Comics – is responsible for the ever-popular TV series Riverdale as well as the deliciously dark Afterlife With Archie and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina comics (upon which this series was based). Aguirre-Sacasa brings his dedication to the series, infusing a morbid mystery into each episode.
We follow Sabrina Spellman, a compassionate and fierce half-mortal, half-witch. As she approaches her 16th birthday, she must choose between staying with her friends in the mortal realm and signing her name in Satan’s book to take her rightful place in the world of witchcraft (her “Dark Baptism” – essentially, a Satanic Quinceañera).
Though the series is set in “present day”, the set and costume design have a distinct retro flair (perhaps a nod to Sabrina’s introduction to Archie Comics in 1962). There’s virtually no modern technology (save for an ancient laptop that is only seen once or twice) which helps to trap that suspension of disbelief. It’s somehow harder to lean in to the idea of ancient witchcraft and rituals if someone in the background is using a cell phone.
You don’t often see a series start on such a high note, but Chilling Adventures of Sabrina pulls no punches with its pilot episode. Appropriately titled “October Country”, it has an anachronistic aesthetic and festive color palette that simply screams Halloween.
The whole atmosphere of the first episode is (pardon the pun) charming as hell. It’s enriched with an intoxicating autumn energy that feels kind of like a photo-negative version of Practical Magic. It evokes that sense of elation you feel when watching a cinematic world that you want to live inside.
Ventures into the magical realm often have a blurred vignette frame – an otherworldly shimmer – that holds a feeling of unreality. But the Halloween ambiance is not limited to the show’s aesthetics. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina definitely does not shy away from its roots in horror.
The series embraces every opportunity for a good scare and leans in to its genre references. An attentive viewer will catch a tip-of-the-hat to films like The Exorcist, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Silence of the Lambs, Suspiria, The Shining, Night of the Living Dead, and more.
When they’re not paying fan service, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has some serious topics to unpack. Episodes touch on discussions of consent, sexual identity, zealotry, hazing, feminism, and free will. Pepper in the frequent cries of “Hail Satan!” and you’ve got yourself a massive tonal shift from what most viewers may expect – and it’s a change we welcome.
For a show that’s geared towards an audience of young adults, conversations of autonomy and equality are appreciated. But as often as we see these moral lessons, they work within the complexity of the plot, rather than forcing the content to fit a particular message. It can get a tad heavy-handed at times, but, given the fantastical plot concepts they’re working with, it’s forgivable.
The cast is full of familiar faces – including Kiernan Shipka (Mad Men, The Blackcoat’s Daughter) as Sabrina Spellman, Ross Lynch (My Friend Dahmer) as her beau Harvey Kinkle, Lucy Davis (Shaun of the Dead, Wonder Woman) and Miranda Otto (The Lord of the Rings, Annabelle: Creation) as nurturing Aunt Hilda and severe Aunt Zelda, Michelle Gomez (Doctor Who) as suspiciously supportive Mary Wardell, and Richard Coyle (Grabbers, Coupling) as the High Priest of the Church of Night (their coven), Father Blackwood.
The delightful Lucy Davis as Aunt Hilda tends to pull focus in every scene she’s in. There’s something inherently endearing about her that you’re just drawn to. Hilda’s complex relationship with Miranda Otto’s Aunt Zelda is something all sisters can relate to (just imagine you’ve been living with your sister for hundreds of codependent years).
While Hilda is easygoing, fun-loving, and keen to connect with the mortal world (she manages the client-facing side of Spellman Mortuary – the family business), Zelda is a strict, devout witch who strives to find favor in the eyes of the Dark Lord.
Zelda’s focus on witchy traditions and family status keeps her at the head of the Spellman household. Otto plays this with a stern reserve that fits perfectly with her character, slipping in just the right amount of sardonic wit.
Michelle Gomez also deserves praise for her role as Sabrina’s bookish-turned-femme fatale teacher, Mary Wardell. She slinks through each scene and revels in the melodramatic nature of her character. It’s a joy to watch.
In the mortal world, Sabrina is deeply dedicated to her school chums; outspoken and strong-willed Rosalind Walker (Jaz Sinclair, When the Bough Breaks), and shy but brave Susie Putnam (Lachlan Watson, Nashville). In the witching world, Sabrina has a strong ally in her cheeky necromancer cousin, Ambrose Spellman (Chance Perdomo, Midsomer Murders), who remains trapped in Spellman Mortuary as the result of a binding spell (the witch-world equivalent of house arrest).
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is one of very few young adult series to
include main characters on the underrepresented side of the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Within the first few episodes, it’s established that Susie identifies as non-binary and Ambrose is pansexual.
It’s a wonderful connection for young audiences to see leading characters that reflect their own gender or sexual identities during a time that can feel incredibly isolating. It offers normalized representation that is completely earnest in the ways it is representative of these characters. Susie is regularly bullied because of her sexual identity, but she has a strong support group in her friends that fiercely fight on her behalf. With Ambrose, there’s never any question or comment on his pansexuality. He just is.
One character that does feel underused is that of Salem the cat – Sabrina’s familiar. The approach the series takes to the genesis of a witch’s familiar is a very cool concept, but we don’t see Salem as often as you’d expect. Though it’s worth noting that this may be more directly related to Kiernan Shipka’s cat allergy.
The overall arc of the series leads in a rather dramatic direction that leaves us at a curious point leading in to Season Two. However, the fourth and fifth episodes of the first season do take a bit of a stumble in the overall pacing of the show.
While the fourth episode does serve a distinct purpose in the narrative – establishing an additional location and setting up a stronger relationship with secondary characters – the sudden change requires a bit of an adjustment from the audience.
The fifth episode digs more into the emotional and mental state of our main characters, but it has a “monster of the week” vibe that doesn’t quite fit with the structure of the rest of the series. That said, it makes sense that there would be a character-focused episode mid-season to give a deeper understanding of the players before driving the plot forward.
It’s understood that Sabrina the Teenage Witch has always – by nature – included a lot of witchcraft. But Chilling Adventures of Sabrina does not take a earthy, pagan, holistic approach to witchcraft, nor does it base itself on the more Hollywood-friendly version, with wands, potions, and flying broomsticks.
As previously mentioned, these witches command their power from an ancient, dark lord. Ritual sacrifices are a regular tradition, calling upon spirits is the best way to get things done, and sighs of relief are expressed with a “Praise Satan”.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has been rather transparent about its dark direction. The marketing materials have heavily focused on the horror-homage elements of the series, and the actual opening credit sequence does a wonderful job of conjuring the overall energy of the show.
It’s a great visual throwback to EC horror comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, while incorporating the sinister supernatural style of the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina comics (with a cute one-shot homage to the original Sabrina character from her Archie Comics days).
When development started in September 2017, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina was intended to air on The CW as a companion piece to Riverdale. However, the project was moved to Netflix in December 2017 with a straight-to-series, two-season order.
Netflix certainly seems like a better fit for the show, as the dark tone and heavy focus on a more Satanic brand of witchcraft likely wouldn’t go over well on network television. After the wild popularity of Stranger Things, Netflix seems to be more comfortable with ambitious genre shows and are generally more flexible with their content.
At its roots, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina still carries that young adult tone that can be seen in Riverdale. This doesn’t in any way mean that it’s too twee for adults – but you must remember that our protagonist is a 16-year-old girl torn between taking her rightful place as a full-blown witch and not wanting to leave her mortal friends (and boyfriend) behind.
So if you want it to be all horror all the time, you’re going to have to adjust your expectations. Much like its titular character, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has one foot firmly in the dramatic world of the mortal American teenager, while the other dabbles in the more horrific world of dark arts.
Sabrina balances these dual identities well, but it will be interesting to see which side wins over.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina premieres on Netflix on October 26.