Like Harry Potter, But With More Satan
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: Part 1
I know plenty of people in my generation (technically Millennial, although I argue that point) who were big fans of the old TGIF show, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. The show came out just at that right point where I was already moving on to other, less tween-targeted shows, and I never bothered to pay attention to it. That's not from a lack of knowledge, as I had read a fair share of Archie comics (magazines that had been dumped on me by my sisters), but simply because that kind of programming no longer interested me.
Still, I'd always kept an eye on what was going on with Archie comics in general, just in case anything interesting actually happened. For along while, nothing did, as Archive and his friends essentially lived in a world that hadn't changed much since the 1950s (except for the fashions). The comics coasted along for, some could argue, 50ish years before they finally evolved. There was a reboot to the series (as much as a continuity free series like Archie can really be rebooted), and then a ton of non-continuity spin-offs exploring the characters in a wild number of ways: exploring two dimensions in Life with Archie, and then horror titles like Unlife with Archie, Vampironica, and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
The new Sabrina title was one I picked up (in trade paperback, as I buy all my comics so I can place them neatly on my shelf) largely because of some great buzz surrounding the title. To be honest, though, the book didn't hook me. The artwork was weird, with this sketchy, watercolor vibe that turned me off. I will admit that it added to the sense of not knowing what might lurk around a corner for Sabrina, giving it a spooky, ethereal feel, so I can understand why some people liked the art, let alone the story. For me, while the story was interesting, the art was not something I could appreciate, so I skipped picking up any further volumes. Thankfully, for those like me that were interesting in where the story could go, but didn't want to deal with the artwork, NetflixOriginally started as a disc-by-mail service, Netflix has grown to be one of the largest media companies in the world (and one of the most valued internet companies as well). With a constant slate of new internet streaming-based programming that updates all the time, Netflix has redefined what it means to watch TV and films (as well as how to do it). just launched a new, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina show based on the comic.
For those that are fans of the comic, let's be clear that the story in the show is different from that in the comics (at least from the one volume I read). In both, Sabrina is dealing with the choice to sign her name into the Book of the Beast and become a willing follower of Satan. That said, in the book, there wasn't much of a choice for Sabrina -- she was all but guaranteed to do it, the only question was when, or what might get in the way of it?
Here, in the series, the whole setup is reversed. Like in the comic, Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) is scheduled to sign the book on her 16th birthday. However, Sabrina is given more agency on her decisions in the show, leading to her not necessarily wanting to sign. She struggles with the choice, and the consequences of what it could mean. She'd end up a willing servant of Satan, and she'd be forced to give up her friends and boyfriend, Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch). The first season is, this, devoted to forces outside of Sabrina's control trying to force her to sign the book. The reason: Sabrina is fated to be Satan's Queen and, somehow, usher in the apocalypse. Seriously, if that had been the hook of the comics, I might have read more of them.
The series does a pretty good job of making all the main characters into likable, interesting characters. As noted, Sabrina has more backbone here, more of her own agency, and it's clear that she's meant to question everything going on around her, to try and find her own path (one, potentially, free of the Dark Lord). Shipka does a good job playing the headstrong girl, one always getting herself into sticky situations with the forces of darkness. I will say that the show didn't quite have Sabrina's tone down in the first couple of episode, with her performance, and writing, coming off as quite stagy, less real. It settles down pretty quickly, though, and by the end of the first season the weight of the show is well guided by Shipka and her character.
The aunts come across much better here than they did in the book. In the comics they were just evil followers of Satan, but the show does a lot to give more nuance to Zelda (Miranada Otto) and Hilda (Lucy Davis). You actually end up liking these two women, this despite the fact that they're willing followers of someone most would agree is an evil god. In fact, while the show is pretty good at illustrating why Sabrina shouldn't trust the Dark One, it doesn't really explain while Zelda or (especially) Hilda would be willing servants. These are decent people who seem to follow the Church of Satanism more than actual Satan (something we'll get to in just a bit), so it's hard to accept that the dark machinations of the Devil are something either of them would really support. We're supposed to just accept they do, and that rings hollow throughout the first season.
That same goes for cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo). The show does an even better job of rehabilitating this character, as in the comics he just came across as a slimy weasel. When one things of a toady of Satan, that's how Ambrose was in the comics. Here, though, he's a sweet, warm character, one who, again, seem at odds with the kind of person you've expect to be a follower of the literal Devil. In the case of Ambrose (who often acts as Sabrina's very well oriented conscience), it's even harder to understand what he sees in the Dark Lord -- sure, he might cast the occasional dark spell, but he never comes across as a bad person.
I also found myself enjoying Sabrina's two friends, Jaz Sinclair (Rossalind Walker) and Susie Putnam (Lachlan Watson), and if these two actually showed up in the comics, I'd be hard-pressed to remember. They are part of what grounds Sabrina to the mortal world, and you can see why from how the characters are written and performed. These are two very likable characters played with aplomb by their actresses. However, Harvey, Sabrina's other reason for remaining with the humans, is a total wet-blanket, but then he was in the comics, too. This is one of those cases where you expect a character to turn to the screen and say, "I'm here because I was in the comics," (you know, as in Josie and the Pussycats), but it's never really clear why Sabrina is with Harvey. Her friends are great, but Harvey is bland and boring.
He's still better than any of the witches at the academy or working for the Dark Church. These characters are all board caricatures of "evil witches". From the Weird Sisters -- Prudence (Tati Gabrielle), Agatha (Adeline Rudolph), and Dorcas (Abigail Cowen) -- to the leader of the Church, Father Faustus (Richard Coyle), these characters all chew enough scenery to reduce the Netflix budget to nothing. But it's not enjoyable scenery-chewing as none of these characters are ever given depth or reason behind their actions. They're evil for evil's sake, and that's just not interesting.
Worse though is the season one villain, an evil shape shifter who takes on the visage of one of Sabrina's teachers, Ms. Wardwell (Michelle Gomez). Wardwell (which we'll call her for lack of a better name) is a all-knowing, all powerful character, the kind that has everything planned out five steps in advance and is working on an agenda only she knows about. This kind of character is lazy (as we already just saw over on season 3 of Daredevil with the Kingpin), since you can attribute any action, no matter how far-fetched or seemingly unrelated, as part of their "master plan". A villain without any fallibility, who is always destined to win, one way or another, quickly grows tiresome. The show would have done better if Sabrina could have learned of her machinations, or somehow always stayed just out of her grasp. But that wasn't the story the series wanted to tell.
Frankly, though, I'm still confused as what story, exactly, the series wanted to tell. Due to the way the first season plays out (without spoiling much), Sabrina effectively ends up right back where she was at the start of the show. The series gives her a ton of agency, all for the sake of making us like her, and then does everything it can to strip all that away. Sabrina, more or less, ends up back where her comics character was at the beginning: with a choice that really isn't her own, doing what's expected of her because what else is she going to do? it's a terrible place to put your heroine, especially after the series spent so long trying to make her an independent person.
Not that we really understand what her choice means, either. We're supposed to just assume the Devil is evil because he's the Devil, but there are so many other demon and creatures running around, beings that the witches oppose, that the whole hierarchy of the Underworld is confusing, to say the least. Does the Devil send out his demons, or are they free agents? Does he accept the evil they perpetrating, or does he orchestrate them? And when they say an "apocalypse", is it the kind where all of humanity will burn, or is it more subtle? None of that is explained, but because of the way the show handles its internal religion and spirituality, the waters are beyond muddied.
As a theological aside, and the explain my issues with this show and its depiction of Satanism, I will note that while in no way, shape, or form a Satanist (as I'm Jewish), I have had friends that were part of the Satanic Church. Their religion did have gods and the like, but Satan himself wasn't actually part of their faith. The name "Satanism" was chosen by the founders to denote a "religion that stands in opposition to the controlling nature of Catholicism." Where the Catholics have rules to follow, sins to worry about, and their place in Heaven to attain, a Satanist is concerned with, "doing that which makes you happy." That's their "moral code" if you will, their guiding principal.
Admittedly I never studied the religion (it wasn't for me), but I did pick up enough to know that while the new Sabrina gets some aspects of this religion right (that desire to do as you like because it makes you happy), it conflates the religion with actual Devil Worship as if the two were the same thing, even using the terms interchangeably. This is where my brain locked up because the two aren't the same, and saying that the Devil is the guiding force between both changes how we have to view this demi-being. We have to question his goals, his motivations, and just who this being really is. Except the show never does that as the Devil isn't a actual character in the first season, just a force we're left to assume is evil simply because. I was left desiring more, to know what the real end goal was, but the show never gave me that information.
So then I have to wonder just who this show is geared towards. It's story and plotting are very YA-friendly. While themes are "chilling", the actual show isn't. It's not very scary, with little in the way of gore or horror, leading me to think Netflix specifically wanted this to be a teen-friendly show. Except then it talks about "Satanism" and "Devil Worship" and has all the trappings of both. If parents were already worried their teens might become devil worshipers over that "Evil Harry Potter and his witchcraft", this show is over several lines by comparison. Adults won't like watching it because it's a little two immature while the kids may not even be allowed to see it.
While the show picks up steam and gets somewhat interesting by the end of the season, it never really justifies its own existence. It's a muddied mess without a clear enough voice to explain what's really going on. Maybe the show-runners wanted to play things close to the chest and keep a lot hidden for season two. If that's the case, for me at least, they kept things to close to the chest. While I might watch the season season, I can't really recommend it for anyone else. There are better, more chilling shows out there for the discerning viewer.