“Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” has about a dozen different ideas of what it wants to do and be, but one thing is for certain: the show is, above all, spooky as hell.
And yes, I do mean “as hell” literally. The new Netflix series drags its heroine to the underworld and back, wreaking havoc with blunt and gruesome heft, reminding us at every given turn that this “Sabrina” is not at all like the peppy ABC comedy that tweens once spent their Fridays with. Based on a recent twist of a Archie comic series by creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” takes obvious delight in perverting every ounce of its once wholesome source material.
Just about the only thing this Sabrina (played with a determined spark by “Mad Men’s” Kiernan Shipka) shares with her original incarnation are her aunts Hilda (Lucy Davis) and Zelda (Miranda Otto), a wary black cat, and a stubbornness to balance being half-mortal and half-witch that ends in disaster more often than not. But this Sabrina’s version of disaster is, as aforementioned, a literal hellscape. Her coven, The Church of Night, is a strict sect of devil worshippers that makes human sacrifices, occasionally eats them, and wants nothing more than for Sabrina to renounce her mortal life and sign herself over to The Dark Lord (aka Satan).
Though its sister show “Riverdale” over on the CW has its fair share of dark twists, “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” sets its town of Greendale apart by creating a relentlessly eerie atmosphere fit for a demon and his devoted followers. The series is replete with Gothic haunted houses overflowing with Lisa Soper’s sinister, spellbinding production design. And even when Angus Strathie’s costumes can be a bit logistically confusing — the show chases a 1960’s aesthetic, but is seemingly set near present day — they are undeniably sharp and distinctive. No one shot of “Sabrina” quite looks like any other show on TV, and that in and of itself as an accomplishment. (Though it should be said that an exception to this rule occurs when the show tries to emphasize its capital s Spookiness by blurring out the edges of a scene, which often just has the effect of making the camera seem like it’s come unfocused.)
But a singular vibe isn’t enough to sustain a series for the long haul, and so “Sabrina” ends up throwing a whole lot at the walls to see what sticks. There are a few separate shows fighting for dominance throughout the ambitious 10-episode first season, a couple of which are much more successful than others.
The least successful is, despite the show and Sabrina’s best intentions, her mortal life. While her friends Roz (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie (Lachlan Watson) eventually get their own worthy storylines, they initially don’t get enough room to distinguish themselves in the middle of all the otherworldly chaos Sabrina is grappling with outside the halls of Baxter High. More problematic is that Sabrina’s relationship with poor, earnest Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch) is supposed to act as her one true anchor to the mortal world, but Shipka and Lynch are never convincing enough together to quite sell it.
The way Sabrina’s home life intersects with The Church of Night is the clearest, most obvious throughline of the series, and all the actors involved are so game that it’s compelling enough even when it starts to get messy. Davis not only brings her signature bright goofiness to the role of Hilda, but gets some truly lovely moments when exploring her character’s bittersweet dilemma of wanting to inspire good from within such a twisted system. As Zelda, Otto adopts an icy and imperial bearing that can border on harsh, but it’s hard to care when she embraces the show’s archness so thoroughly. (The same applies to Richard Coyle as Father Blackwood, the coven’s domineering and often hypocritical leader, and Michelle Gomez as a possessed teacher.) One of the show’s better surprises is Chance Perdomo as Ambrose Spellman, Sabrina’s housebound cousin who starts off as a rote dispenser of advice before settling into a groove all his own.
But the one aspect of “Sabrina” that deserves more time in this first season is the Academy of Unseen Arts. Overseen by Father Blackwood and unofficially ruled by a trio of smirking Weird Sisters (Tati Gabrielle, Abigail Cowen, and Adeline Rudolph), the Academy acts as a sort of deeply wicked, bizarro world Hogwarts. Sabrina is ostensibly supposed to learn the mechanics of how magic actually works there, but since she only spends random weekends there and becomes powerful anyway, the Academy ends up acting more as a convenient backdrop more than anything else. That’s a shame, since some of the show’s best moments — and in turn, Shipka’s — come when Sabrina is facing off against the Weird Sisters, making uneasy alliances with their leader Prudence (Gabrielle), and resisting the charms of intriguing warlock student Nick Scratch (Gavin Leatherwood).
For as interesting as some of the coven material is, it’s easy — and a little frustrating — to imagine the show “Sabrina” could’ve been if it had embraced the Academy. Many of the scenes that click fully into place involve some combination of Academy students, lore, and protocol that make it feel like such a promising, pitch-black “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” heir that it’s disappointing when the series pulls away.
The good news is that once the show pushes past its initial throat clearing, is alluring and compelling enough to discourage looking away — and that season 2, should it come to pass, practically demands that “Sabrina” as a show and character alike embrace the Academy. With a little more focus (both literally and figuratively), the series has as much potential as its heroine to become something great.
Drama, 60 minutes. Premieres Friday, October 26 on Netflix.
Cast: Kiernan Shipka, Miranda Otto, Lucy Davis, Richard Coyle, Chance Perdomo, Ross Lynch, Jaz Sinclair, Lachlan Watson, Tati Gabrielle, Adeline Rudolph, Abigail Cowen, Michelle Gomez.
Crew: Executive producers: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Greg Berlanti, Sarah Schechter, Jon Goldwater, and Lee Toland Krieger.