The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
In 1996, ABC premiered a supernatural sitcom about a quirky teenage witch named Sabrina as part of its TGIF line-up. The show featured a talking cat, spells that could be performed with the wiggle of a finger, two odd aunts, and a talking cat. The talking cat was objectively the best part of the show, which was utterly bonkers in its own right.
In 2018, Netflix premiered a supernatural horror drama about a quirky teenage witch named Sabrina on its streaming platform. The show featured a “cat”, spells that could be performed by calling on the literal devil, and two odd aunts (one of whom routinely murdered the other for laughs). No, the cat doesn’t talk in this one. Why? Because a talking cat would mean the show wasn’t edgy enough. Oh yeah, the show also gave Sabrina a cousin named Ambrose, who was added to the show to be Sabrina’s cousin, guiding her in the ways of magic in a very cousin-like fashion.
Netflix’s Sabrina bears little in resemblance to its 90s counterpart and in fact, the title characters of the show have very few similarities – barring the fact that they’re both blonde, lily-white teenagers who happen to be obsessively in love with a boy named Harvey, the two have almost nothing in common. The show shares more similarities with its sister show, Riverdale, which makes sense, considering they were both made by the same people, and therefore somewhat parallel each other in both tone and aesthetic. This Sabrina isn’t for little kids. It’s for angsty teens.
The problem with the show doesn’t stem from its dark tone however, nor is it as a result of its subject matter or theme. The main issue with the show is that the writing, at its worst, is absolutely abysmal. The show flagrantly ignores the cardinal screenwriting rule of “show, don’t tell”, forcing us to suffer through character monologues which essentially act as clunky info-dumps. Characters aren’t introduced through their actions, they’re described in excruciating detail by other characters, who effectively act as exposition machines. Relationships aren’t fleshed out, they’re yelled out by people who, common sense would dictate, should know who they are to each other. The show doesn’t trust its audience’s intelligence enough to just tell a good story, without telegraphing every single character motivation to us through increasingly jarring methods.
The writing for the show is woeful in other regards. Plot points are picked up and randomly dropped off with gleeful abandon, and with little warning. For instance, at the start of the season, Sabrina and her friends desperately try to form a society to protect women at their high school. It’s called WICCA (get it? Cause the show’s about witches. It’s really funny, I promise) and it’s a major plot point that is focused on throughout the first few episodes, and then it just… disappears and is just never mentioned again. They genuinely devoted huge chunks of the first few episodes to this society, and then never bring it up again throughout the duration of the show. So, um… what was the point?
The writing also fails when considering the structure of the show. In defence of the show, this problem is shared by most Netflix programming, and “Sabrina” is far from the only offender. Many Netflix shows are for some reason, designed to be heavy at the top, heavy at the bottom and awkwardly light in the middle, almost like a burger made by a weirdly stingy chef. This problem is glaringly obvious in Sabrina though, as after the first three or so episodes, the main plot just stops dead, and the show meanders for a good few episodes, like it’s killing time before the show can start up again. This has the effect of making the show immediately engaging, then almost punishing to get through, before it gets kinda good again.
The show is not without its merits though. It’s shot beautifully and the effects are genuinely top notch. It’s clear that a lot of care and effort was put into designing the show’s world and its elements, making it feel more tangible and easier to get invested in. The creature design for some of the monsters and scares in the show’s run are also legitimately impressive. The cast also does a good job with the material they’re given, and for the most part, are believable. Sabrina, Harvey and Roz are slightly shaky in certain scenes, but the rest of the ensemble cast more than make up for it, helping the show feel like more than the sum of its parts.
In conclusion, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a serviceable show that knows how to pander to its target audience well, while being generally inoffensive, if unremarkable to the rest of us. An argument can also be made for whether it should even exist at all, because seriously, why do we need to make a dark, gritty version of everything we loved from the 90s? However, it does, and seeing as Netflix has already greenlit a second season for April 2019, it looks like it’ll be sticking around for a while. And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe, despite the kinks and obvious growing pains it needs to work out, a female led programme helmed by a strong, charismatic lead isn’t a bad thing for teenage girls to be able to see. Maybe there’s space for this weird little show in our current TV climate. Maybe it has the potential to improve as it goes on, and maybe, just maybe, there might even be a legitimately good show hiding behind the fog of Sabrina’s more obvious failings.