The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (hereafter Sabrina) is a show at odds with itself. On the one hand, it tries to be a mature, thoughtful examination of the negative effect of patriarchy on women all done in a slick, dark show. On the other hand, it’s also trying to be an accessible teen drama. Where the show gets muddled is in how those elements interacts. By trying to be accessible, it sacrifices some of its thematic weight and replaces it with conventional storytelling mechanisms that often feels clichéd and undermines the mood and aim of the show. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m disappointed. I was hoping for so much more.
Sabrina revolves around Sabrina Spellman and her entry into the Church of Night, a coven of witches and warlocks active in her town for centuries. Sabrina’s father was a progressive High Priest of the Coven before both of her parents died in a plane crash. We see Sabrina struggle to reconcile her philosophy with the rigid, established patriarchy of the Church of Night and with its frustrating leader Father Blackwood. She early on refuses to sign her name in the Book of the Beast, which would grant her access to the full breadth of power witches are entitled to, as well as “immortality” or rather extremely slow aging so she can live for thousands of years. This refusal is due to the nature of the deal, if you sign, the devil grants you power in exchange for devotion and the abandonment of your human life. Sabrina is reluctant to give up her agency and individuality in the process and believes there has to be another way to get things done. In the background of this is Sabrina’s human life, her boyfriend and school friend, her teacher Mrs. Wardwell, a teacher possessed by a demon making a play to become Sabrina’s authority figure, and her home life with her controlling aunt Zelda, her aloof aunt Hilda and housebound cousin Ambrose.
The biggest issue of Sabrina is its length. Each episode is close to 60 minutes. That is a lot of content in a lot of episodes, it felt like there was lots of filler content to accommodate for these lengthy episodes. This length worked quite well in the first episode to set everything in motion and in the genuinely terrific two-parter The Burial/The Returned Man later in the season, but it unfortunately was not the case for every episode. A lot of the elements could have been shortened, or perhaps more appropriately tightened. The show meanders in some areas that transforms the show in an endurance test. The worst culprit of this was Chapter Three: The trial of Sabrina Spellman, a confused meandering courtroom episode where Sabrina is tried for refusing to sign the book of the beast during her dark baptism. The episode sets up a dramatic confrontation between Father Blackwood and Sabrina. Surprisingly, the trial begins early in the episode, only to have every scene ends with a twist interspersed with scenes outside the courtroom, usually at a different time, before returning to the courtroom for more truncated development. This episode was excruciating because it fell for all of the clichés of courtroom dramas. Laying down the case, surprise, pause, resuming of the trial, surprise, pause. The pauses were the most bizarre since they leave the courtroom, an entire day passes until they resume the trial. It should have really placed all of its elements on the map before sending our characters on a wild goose trial that seems to last six or seven short bursts of ten minutes in a courtroom. This added length and unnecessary padding to the episode. Tightening the script would have reduced some of the extraneous elements.
Another disappointment came in the character of Sabrina and in how she’s written. Now Kiernan Shipka is a really good actress. If you haven’t seen The Blackcoat’s Daughter, do check it out, it’s a wonderful horror film and she’s terrific in it. Something felt really off about the way Sabrina was written to be the audience stand-in. We’re learning about the world, the customs of the witches through her. This turned out to be a hindrance since her character was raised by her aunts, the customs and traditions of the witches coven should not come as a surprise to her. Yet, time and time again, we are shown that Sabrina Spellman is unaware of some of the basic elements of the witch world surrounding her. It’s a conundrum really, usually a fantasy series would introduce a fish out of water character that doesn’t know everything so it can be explained to them and in turn, the audience. Instead of having that kind of character, we are now stuck with having Sabrina, who really should have learned things a long time ago who’s now being explained some basic elements about witches culture, thus making her look like a fool. The purpose of it is that she questions the established order of things as she learns about crazy, unethical or sexist customs, but it makes her look aloof and act in a way that seems inconsistent with the world it’s trying to build.
Now my favourite thing about the series is how it took one of the worst character traits of her lead character and turned it into her downfall and teased at her redemption through the same means. See Sabrina is self-righteous in the show. She lectures authority figures constantly, particularly Father Blackwood, but her aunt Zelda, the Weird Sisters, sometimes even her friends or her boyfriend. Things always manage to work out for her in the end. This gets turned on its head when she decides to perform an act of black magic, a resurrection spell, that requires a sacrifice. She thinks she found a loophole, but she is wrong and everything she tried to do backfires spectacularly. This was a humbling moment and a wonderful opportunity for growth as Sabrina confronts her own youthful arrogance and re-evaluate things about herself. Sabrina’s friends were also a highlight of the show, even if the plot about the ghost of Susie’s great grandmother felt a little contrived.
I’m coming down pretty hard on the show, but I should dispel the impression that I hated it. It’s not all bad though, there’s a lot of charm and personality in this show and I’m going to watch the holiday special and the second season when it airs. It’s flawed, but it’s also part of Sabrina’s…. charm. I’m just hoping the show will break it’s dry spell and get that extra bit of magic it needs to be Ex-spell-tional or Spell-ceptional.
Philippe Leblanc is a Canadian comics journalist. In his regular life, he improves Canadian medical education, and is the co-host of the Ottawa Comic Book Club. He reads alternative, indie and art comics at night and write about them for the Comics Beat.