If you grew up in the ‘90s, there’s a good chance you wanted to be (or be with) Sabrina the Teenage Witch. (I personally remember counting down the days to my sixteenth birthday when my parents were obviously going tell me I was magically inclined.) The American sitcom ran from ‘96 to 2003 and starred girl next door Melissa Joan Hart as the wacky but wholesome young witch who managed to get into all kinds of magical hijinks, from turning a classmate into a pineapple to going ‘pancake mad’. Along with her talking cat Salem and cute boyfriend Harvey, she was the most popular girl on television for a time, but the Netflix Original reboot - which hits the streaming service today - is not that. Not in any way. Put Sabrina the Teenage Witch out of your mind and get ready for the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which sees the young witch battle the forces of darkness, as well as a terrifying conflict within herself.
Note: Extremely mild story spoilers for Chilling Adventures of Sabrina to follow.
Based on the Archie Comics series which reimagined the character in a much darker setting than her ‘60s comic book origins, the new TV show (opens in new tab) is bringing this reinterpretation of everyone’s favourite teenage witch to the small screen, and from the first eight episodes I’ve seen, it’s set to be your new obsession whether you watched The Teenage Witch or not. There are some similarities, though. Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) is still a half-witch, half-mortal teenager struggling to balance her two worlds while attending high school, but gone are the frivolous concerns about boys, looks, and high school popularity.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina ending (opens in new tab) explained - everything you need to know after watching
Instead, Sabrina is more concerned with fighting the good fight for her fellow female students, going head-to-head with the masochistic Principal Hawthorne (Bronson Pinchot) to found WICCA (Women’s Intersectional Creative Cultural Association) in the first few episodes. Her home life is very different as well. Although Sabrina’s aunts and guardians Zelda (Miranda Otto) and Hilda (Lucy Davis) are still a mainstay, the fun magical home life which was a big part of The Teenage Witch has been replaced with a dark, devilish mythology, which has more in common with some of the best horror movies (opens in new tab) than daytime television.
It’s these two worlds that Sabrina is trying to reconcile as her sixteenth birthday, and consequently her Dark Baptism, approaches. Once she signs her name in the Book of the Beast, she will have to leave her mortal life behind and attend the Academy of Unseen Arts. Other than leaving her boyfriend Harvey (Ross Lynch) and friends Ros (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie (Lachlan Watson) behind, Sabrina has some concerns about pledging herself to the Devil… naturally.
While previous Sabrina adaptations have steered clear of the darker mythology surrounding witches for obvious reasons, Chilling Adventures grabs hold of the idea of Devil worship with both hands and wraps every uncomfortable, disturbing, and terrifying element of religion you can think of into its portrayal of the Church of Night. In fact, I’ve never seen such a damning indictment of organised religion than this. While Sabrina is fighting for equality and a woman’s right to choose at school, her Aunt Zelda is making sure she’s still a virgin so she can go through with her Dark Baptism. Yes, really. Consequently, Sabrina’s inner conflict is the same as most teenagers - she’s torn between her family’s expectations for her and what she wants. Between tradition and progress, old and new. Just with the added danger that if she makes the wrong choice, she’ll be damned for all eternity. No pressure then.
Just like its counterpart Riverdale (which is a part of the same universe), Chilling Adventures deftly mixes an old school tale of witches with more modern issues facing teenagers today, to create a show which appeals to our desire for dark storytelling, as well as strong female stories. While Chilling Adventures is more disturbing than scary, it’s most certainly horror as it covers a wide variety of creepy topics from cannibalism to necromancy. Although there are moments of violence, this isn’t your typical bloody horror story and the series satisfies itself with freaking you out for the most part rather than making you run for the hills. One thing worth mentioning is that during scenes of particular horror or magic, there’s a blurring around the sides of the frame, which I found somewhat distracting. It’s certainly an unusual filmmaking device, which adds a level of other-worldliness to some scenes, but I’m not convinced it’s necessary.
As for the casting, it couldn’t be more perfect. Shipka, who refined her acting skills as Sally Draper on Mad Men, strikes the right balance between a hopeful young girl and a serious teenage activist. It’s clear she’s been acting all her life, and the fact that she’s actually a teenager adds a nice touch when we're so used to seeing twenty-year-olds pretending they’re in high school (I’m looking at you, One Tree Hill!). Otto and Davis provide the perfect yin and yang to Sabrina’s home life with Davis playing the more maternal and caring Hilda, while Otto is the cool and calculating Zelda.
Something which I found shocking at first, but is now one of my favourite things about the characters, is that it’s clear from the very beginning that they are both extremely flawed in different ways. They don’t always make the right choices, but they do love Sabrina and, in this way, Chilling Adventures manages to capture a brutally honest but realistic portrayal of family life. They aren’t alone at home either, with Sabrina’s cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) under magical house arrest for trying to blow up the Vatican. While Perdomo does a more than adequate job, it’s not yet apparent if his character will pay off in the long run, but, if nothing else, he adds another refreshing element to Sabrina’s home life. Especially as Salem isn’t talking… yet.
Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle) and Mrs Wardell (Michelle Gomez) are also particular highlights. Anyone who’s seen Coyle as the goofy Jeff in British sex comedy series Coupling will take particular delight in watching him play the High Priest of the Church of Night in Chilling Adventures. While his performance could have come off as camp in any other hands, he skilfully manages to make the gothic trappings of Father Blackwood appropriately menacing rather than silly. As for Gomez, she plays one of Sabrina’s teachers who’s been possessed by a demon - like her character Missy from Doctor Who, she’s at her best when playing a baddie.
The secondary characters are rounded out by the Weird sisters (Tati Gabrielle, Adeline Rudolph, Abigail F. Cowen) - the mean girls of the Academy of Unseen Arts - and Harvey’s love rival Nicholas (Gavin Leatherwood), but a particular shout out needs to go to Gabrielle, who is so captivating on screen she almost steals the show from Shipka. Lynch, Sinclair, Watson, and Pinchot also prove they have what it takes to be a part of the next big thing as Sabrina’s friends and principal, but other than Lynch - who has shown himself to not only be the perfect boyfriend but also the perfect actor for the part - they haven’t been given much of a chance to shine yet.
While I’ve yet to see the last few episodes, it’s hard to fault Chilling Adventures so far. It’s clear that a lot of work has gone into this adaptation, both on and off screen, and it’s more than paid off. From the casting and storylines, to the aesthetic and costumes, every element of Chilling Adventures knows exactly what is it and what it’s trying to say. While it’s certainly part of the current horror and strong female television trends, it makes it its own and never feels tired or like a carbon copy. If you’re not a horror or fantasy fan… well, I’m not sure why you’re here, but this is probably not the show for you. But if you’ve been waiting for a high-quality, gothic teenage drama that isn’t afraid to push boundaries, you’ll take unimaginable delight in bingeing all of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is just one of the best shows on Netflix - catch up on the rest in our best list breakdown.