Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) is a child of two worlds. On the one hand, she appears to be like any other teenager as she goes to the high school in her hometown of Greendale, she goes out with her friends, frequents the local bookstore and has a loving boyfriend, but Sabrina is also a half witch, the daughter of a warlock and former high priest of the Church of Night, and she lives among the other witches of her coven, residing in her family’s mortuary with her aunts, Zelda (Miranda Otto) and Hilda (Lucy Davis), and cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo). On her sixteenth birthday, Sabrina finds herself torn between her two lives as she’s required to sign her name in the book of the beast, devoting herself entirely to the life of witchcraft and service to the Dark Lord, but fears leaving her mortal life behind and she is torn between her two worlds, she soon has to confront increasingly dark forces that threaten both the mortals and witches of the town.
Growing up in the nineties, I vaguely remember seeing snippets of Sabrina the Teenage Witch when it was on TV but I never sat down to watch it and I don’t remember much about it other than the fact that it had a talking cat called Salem in it. And when I heard of the upcoming Netflix incarnation of the same story, apparently from the makers of Riverdale (which I haven’t seen), I was planning on giving it a miss. But hearing that Kiernan Shipka would be playing the title role was all it took to change my mind because she proved herself to be a very talented young actress when she starred as Sally Draper in Mad Men.
And it was a good decision to give the series a go because, despite an occasionally patchy couple of early episodes, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina turned out to be an imaginative, exciting and admirably dark series with a generous amount of colourful characters and a storyline that often left me wanting more.
At first, the series can seem a little uncertain as it appears a little too “young adult-y”, perhaps too similar to something like Riverdale (I’m guessing. Never saw it), some of the acting can seem a little hammy and you may find yourself desperate for Sabrina to make her decision and for the show to actually start “witching” properly. But all of that is ultimately just nit-picking because after those opening two episodes which primarily focus on Sabrina and her indecision about whether she’ll sign the Dark Lord’s book or not, the series quickly hits its stride and gives us a confident, compelling and eventful narrative that is full of dark, thrilling events as well as plenty of warm and emotional moments when it looks at themes of family and friendship.
There’s a strong and engaging overarching narrative that proves itself to be refreshingly mature and it doesn’t pander to the YA crowd too much; there’s that hint of teen drama with a Harry Potter/Twilight vibe mixed in but the series should be able to appeal to most audiences looking for some exciting thrills and, admirably, the series is very often really dark, chilling and mature – with uncompromising scares and even several hints of sex thrown in. The main story is strong but additionally, the series also includes several side stories that are integrated very well into the main narrative: nearly all of the characters have their own stories to tell and this results in a remarkably well balanced series that’s a perfect length and allows for many fleshed out and very interesting characters.
Regarding the teenage witch of the hour, the main reason why I began this series in the first place, Kiernan Shipka is a great fit as Sabrina as she effectively conveys the character’s bravery, determination, intelligence and genuine compassion for her witching family and mortal friends while also occasionally showing anger, uncertainty and despair when the story requires. She’s a strong lead and it’s great to see her having so much fun in the title role.
The series also spoils us by including so many colourful and memorable supporting characters and in particular, Miranda Otto and Lucy Davis are wonderful as Sabrina’s aunts Zelda (“Aunt Z”) and Hilda – a far less scary Spiker and Sponge, if you will. Aunt Zelda initially appears as the aloof, distant and incredibly strict one, setting the rules and not taking any guff from anyone, but as the series goes on, we clearly see how much she loves and cares for Sabrina and ultimately, she’s a formidably fierce and protective maternal figure who we grow to care about and Miranda Otto shows the character’s staunch protectiveness and hidden compassion brilliantly. On the other hand, Aunt Hilda is the outwardly affectionate one, perhaps seeming a bit goofy at times but there’s still plenty of strength and determination in her and like Zelda, she’s incredibly protective of Sabrina. Lucy Davis (still in full Etta Candy mode, it would seem) is an endearing and most welcome addition to the series and the dynamic between her and Miranda Otto is great – the parts of the story that deal with their sibling rivalry are often the stronger parts of the narrative.
Jaz Sinclair and Lachlan Watson are strong as Sabrina’s best friends Roz and Suzie, each getting their own solid side stories, Ross Lynch and Gavin Leatherwood are good as the “Edward and Jacob” love interests Harvey and Nicholas, Richard Coyle is perfectly nasty and sly as High Priest Father Blackwood, and Tati Gabrielle is effectively smarmy, condescending and bitchy as Prudence – the Queen Bee of the three “Weird Sisters” who takes great pleasure in tormenting Sabrina for being a “half breed”, though she also proves to be a capable ally and she gets a storyline that gives her depth and affords her some sympathy.
And then there’s Michelle Gomez who plays the mysterious Miss Wardwell; in a typically mad and unhinged performance (i.e. the kind of role that Gomez can play in her sleep), she’s a constant enigma of a character as she’s often the one that Sabrina can call on for assistance but we know all too well that she’s not all she seems and that she has some very nasty plans in store for the teenage witch – a real Wicked Witch of the West. Which I only really mention because there’s a scene where Salem saves Sabrina after a chase through a maze and after her “defeat”, I could just hear her screaming “I’ll get you, my pretty! And your little cat too!”
On the technical front, the series does very well because the production design is spot on and the series gives us plenty of visually appealing locations that we soon get to know and which really feel lived in. The effects are also efficiently done as all the ghouls, monsters and nasty things are well designed (though many animals look too fake) and the cinematography helps to create a moody and intense atmosphere. But I have to say that the camerawork often gets noticeably blurry and unfocused and even though there was presumably a reason behind this, I found the sporadic, inconsistent blurry bits to be quite the hindrance and in those early episodes, it hampers the enjoyment of the series.