This review is spoiler-free other than material released in the show’s trailers.
Much ado has been made about how, in the absence of any new Stranger Things episodes this year, Netflix is seeking to fill the Halloween binge-watching void with Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina. A sort of companion show to the CW’s Riverdale that features members of the same creative team – including showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (who liberally adapts his comic of the same name) – this effort feels like a much more grounded affair, which is odd given how its main character is a teenage witch whose family worships Satan. This review dares not to tell you what, if any, narrative link there is to the goings on just across Sweetwater River, but that subject won’t even be on the minds of the most hardcore Bughead devotees, as Chilling Adventures is firmly committed to walking its own dark path.
Our story opens with Sabrina Spellman (Mad Men‘s Kiernan Shipka) preparing for her sixteenth birthday, one that will be commemorated with a Dark Baptism in which she will declare her devotion to serving Satan. Born of a warlock father and a human mother who died when she was an infant, Sabrina finds herself torn between two distinct parts of her personality.
She lives in the town of Greendale (already established on Riverdale as a hub of supernatural activity) at her family’s funeral home with her kindly Aunt Hilda (a scene-stealing Lucy Davis from The Office), her strict Aunt Zelda (Miranda Otto from the Lord Of The Rings trilogy), and her Cousin Ambrose (a haunting Chance Perdomo), a helpful pansexual warlock who is forced to remain under house arrest at the residence as punishment for crimes he committed years ago.
The main reason Sabrina is so tormented about giving up her mortal side to fully become a witch is her commitment to her friends, most notably her boyfriend Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch). The Sabrina/Harvey relationship is at the emotional core of Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina‘s first season, and it is one that feels way more grounded in reality than any of the couplings on Riverdale, which is odd given the otherworldly forces constantly trying to rip the pair apart. Equally realistic are Sabrina’s dealings with her best friends: The inquisitive and strong Roz (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie (Lachlan Watson), a character who finds herself bullied by other students at Baxter High.
Working to encourage Sabrina to join the Church of Night are Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle), the leader of her family’s coven and the dean at Greendale’s secret witchcraft school, The Academy of the Unseen Arts, and Doctor Who‘s Michelle Gomez as Mary Wardell, a teacher and confidant who has her own shadowy agenda with the youth. Along with Old Scratch himself, these are Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina’s primary antagonists, and Gomez is especially, er, enchanting as a character who, through the power of dramatic irony, viewers are always aware of her evil intentions… even if the Spellmans are not.
Standout supporting characters include Tati Gabrielle as Prudence, a witch student at The Academy of the Unseen Arts whose life gets regularly intertwined with Sabrina’s, Bronchot Pinchot (!) as Baxter High’s smarmy principal, and Lost co-star L. Scott Caldwell as Roz’s mysterious grandmother.
Initally the focus of the season is Sabrina’s Dark Baptism, and whether or not she will decide to fully embrace her birthright. Once this storyline is dealt with, the series finds itself struggling for a bit at its midpoint as it engages in some narrative wheel-spinning in the form of the no-frills dark Hogwarts goings on at The Academy of Unseen Arts and an extended Exorcist-homage.
Both of these plotlines feel like the sort of filler that continually taints Netflix’s Marvel shows. However, the season’s near-perfect second half more than makes up for these slow-burn episodes, and viewers realise that what may have seemed like story placeholding was actually a clever bit of narrative misdirection designed to turn your attention away from the subtle changes impacting the characters are driving them towards the season’s powerful finale.
Holding all of this together is Kiernan Shipka. Her portrayal of Sabrina is that of a well-meaning teen whose desire to protect her loved ones can lead to some questionable decision making (to say the least). She creates a believable character who is immersed into one unfathomable situation after another. On the shoulders of a less talented actress, the house of cards that is Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina would collapse into itself.
Here Shipka gives a naturalistic performance that – especially in later episodes – makes you understand Sabrina’s motives, even if you don’t agree with the choices the character makes. She is a typical teen thrown into a supernatural world, but unlike the characters on say The Magicians or the new Charmed reboot, her experiences somehow feel relatable.
As a whole, the acting on this series is memorable. Even secondary characters without much screentime like Susie, who is coming to terms with her sexuality and living up to her family’s legacy, are given ample room to allow the actors that embody them thrive. In fact, there is not a character who does not experience profound development over the first ten episodes.
Of the many character pairings viewers will fall in love with, perhaps the greatest are Hilda and Zelda. When we first meet them, Hilda is regularly the focus of Zelda’s wrath, frequently killed and resurrected by her acerbic relative. You come to understand the pair’s dysfunction as the series progresses, and learn that beneath it all is a shared love for each other. Damaged and crazy, but love nonetheless. (And prepare yourself, no character on TV this year is as instantly lovable as Lucy Davis’ Aunt Hilda).
To answer the Sabrina The Teenage Witch fans who grew up on the 1990s show, all I’ll say is that Salem is a part of this series. But you’ll have to watch to see how.
No discussion of Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina is complete without mentioning the Satan-worshipping elephant in the room. Yes, fundamentalist groups are going to have a field day with this one, especially given our current conservative climate. Yet somehow the Satantic stuff – and hoo boy is there obviously a lot of it – feels like set dressing for what this show is truly about, and that’s a family who deeply loves each other despite the insane times in which they live. If that ain’t relatable prestige television for 2018, I don’t know what is.
Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina arrives on Netflix on Friday the 26th of October.